The Infinite Space of the Present (Wordsworth vs. Pater)


The moment.  The present: an infinite space, that once sensed, the mind flees from itself and dissolves to become the body.  ‘But don’t you get bored?’ I was asked yesterday.  A sensible question when you tell someone that you’re running eight hours a week.  I get bored thinking about it, but never while I’m doing it.  Boredom is a fine balance between mental awareness and disengagement – the awareness is necessary in order to sense one’s disengagement – and for me that is one of the last things likely to happen when I’m out running.  A state where perception is charged like static waiting to be earthed, and disengagement means the disappearance of self.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an Hungarian psychologist, coined a name for this in-the-body experience in his study Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience.  ‘Flow’ is when ‘the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.’  The activity is borne along by an unseen force, each movement, thought, idea, follows the next; as inevitable as the course of a meandering river.  The three tributaries of  attention, motivation, and skill all meet in this moment, and like the combination of the three primary colours, they find in their meeting their annihilation and become white light. 
But there is more to this experience than being colloquially ‘in the moment’.  It isn’t just about levels of concentration, one of the other effects of this free-wheeling biological imperative – the moment when the body becomes the essence of itself, the real ‘I am’ – is a perceptual gift.  It is lent from somewhere and later returned to that unknown place.  Call it passion, perception, a quickening, it is something.  Walter Pater called it a ‘multiplied consciousness’ for him it was a ‘strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving’ of self.  Everything is in flux, not just our biological lives, but everything all the way through our day-to-day existence to our aesthetic impressions.  If we are to suck upon the marrow of life we must develop skills of “sharp and eager observation”: for “every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us, – for that moment only”.  Pater’s assessment of the ideal is ‘to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. 
 Wordsworth, too, understood the value of the moment, its meaning, its reach, its longevity.  His ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798’, from its title, the poem announces itself as a study of both memory and its necessity.

The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.  And so I dare to hope
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, 
when first I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all.

Turner – Tintern Abbey

The present, for Wordsworth, the paean of this extraordinary poem, is almost lost in a vortex of his childhood, his ideas of nature as they were when he was a boy, the future, and what this 1798 version of the present will mean to him then.  The present that the poem attempts to recount has disappeared into the mind of the poet.  It is extinguished in a flurry of thought and philosophy.  The distance between subject and object in the poem is significant.  The Abbey, the land, the sky, the world, all appear at a crane-arm’s length.  The primary sense is the visual without the awkward personal proximities of touch or taste or smell.  The landscape runs in his veins, but he does not run through this landscape, only in his own memory of it.  Pater called it an ‘impassioned contemplation’ and felt Wordsworth a ‘powerful and original poet, hidden away, in part, under those weaker elements’ of his work.  How could he love Wordsworth when he argues elsewhere that perception is ‘not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.’ 

Pater wished us to pitch ourselves upon the world and the moment.  Invoking Novalis’s dictum ‘to philosophize is to throw off apathy, to become revived’, Pater argued ‘of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.’  Where Wordsworth saw the eternal possibilities of memory in the moment, Pater senses only the moment’s immediacy.  For both, experience and perception are mental faculties.  One’s philosophy seems to kill it, the other is ‘revived’ by it.  
The moment.  The present: an infinite space, that once sensed, the mind flees from itself and dissolves to become the body.  Even Csikszentmihalyi sees ‘flow’ as a mental state, where the ego disappears.  But it is the wrong word for the runner’s experience.  Being ‘in the zone’ isn’t right either.  The contiguity of ‘flow’ fits, but not what happens to consciousness and perception.  Instead, it is where corporeality meets hyper-reality; where the physical meets the metaphysical.  
In her writings about her life with her husband, Helen Thomas discussed how, as a late-Victorian woman, she discovered her body.

I loved being without clothes, and moving about naked, and I took pride in my health and strength.  Edward and I read Richard Jefferies, and with delight I found the joy in one’s body spoken of there as if it was right and good.  For with my old distrust of myself I had wondered if the joy I felt in my body indicated some moral deficiency in me, as my mother’s teaching had been in direct opposition to what I felt so instinctively. (Under Storm’s Wing)

Richard Jefferies was floored by numerous illnesses.  He left London believing it to be bad for his health (as many did – among them, Hardy).  And, like a satellite, lived in various parts of Sussex and Surrey throughout his adult life.  He died aged 39 and left behind him a canon that included, fiction, fantasy, the ‘Bevis’ books, science fiction, poetry, nature writing, and an autobiography The Story of My Heart, where he revelled in the unwriteable ecstasies of his body.


With all the intensity of feeling which exalted me, all the intense communion I held with the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean – in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written – with these I prayed, as if they were the keys of an instrument, of an organ, with which I swelled forth the note of my soul […] Next to myself I came and recalled myself, my bodily existence. I held out my hand, the sunlight gleamed on the skin and the iridescent nails; I recalled the mystery and beauty of the flesh. I thought of the mind with which I could see the ocean sixty miles distant, and gather to myself its glory. I thought of my inner existence, that consciousness which is called the soul. These, that is, myself –  I threw into the balance to weight the prayer the heavier.  […] I hid my face in the grass, I was wholly prostrated, I lost myself in the wrestle, I was rapt and carried away.

Jefferies’ ‘fine balance’ is where one might find oneself, in the mist between the mind and the body, ‘rapt and carried away’ on awareness and its disappearance. 
 Like Jefferies’ experience of the world around him, the  running animal is aware of the body in a way that the sleeping and philosophising one is not. It is aware of its surroundings, like life suddenly lived in Technicolor.  The running animal feels its frailty, its limits, its pulse, its hunger, its exertion, its limbs, its pain.  The body becomes omnipresent, it is in its surroundings.  
It is its physicality.
It is itself.  
I am. 




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