Descartes, as we know, kick-started Western rationalism with his famous formula Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”. This was, according to Descartes, a ‘self-evident’ truth, a proposition that not only he did not, but could not, doubt.
Descartes was in some sense a believer and, possibly, might have deplored the one-sided adulation of ‘Reason’ and the consequent down-grading of emotion that was such a prominent feature of the 18th century Enlightenment. Christianity from the beginning disparaged the testimony of the senses because they could only provide knowledge of this world, and discouraged sensual gratification since it inevitably led on to unlawful sex. But Christianity could never set itself completely against sensation since, after all, God had made the universe and man and it was possible for man to ‘sense’ the presence of God.
Surprisingly, no important philosophic movement has taken as its starting point physical sensation : almost all start with abstractions or divine revelation. There is empiricism, of course, but its leading thinkers such as Hume were more concerned to show how unreliable the senses were rather than lauding them as the judge of what was real or not. The extension of man’s senses by way of scientific instruments has eventually replaced sensation itself, just as laboratory experiment has replaced direct experience which is dismissed as ‘anecdotal’. It was only the Romantics who believed in sensation as a guide to truth and as the source of a kind of morality : a morality which excused almost everything so long as the practitioner was committed to ‘Life’ with a capital ‘L’.
Catherine Pozzi, in her more optimistic moments, viewed herself as a prophet in a scientific age, one who would reverse the general trend and reach a synthesis of sensualism, science and religion. This at any rate was the theme of the curiously titled Peau d’Ame (‘Skin of the Soul’), a rambling and inconsequential work not much read today if at all. She states in the Prologue her version of the Cogito : “JE-SENS-DONCE-JE-SUIS” and adds that it is sensation, rather than abstract thought, which requires the (notion of) the ego — “Ce n’est pas la pensée, c’est le sentir qui a besoin de JE” (Peau d’Ame, Prologue). Anne Malaprade, in her insightful book Catherine Pozzi, Architecte d’un univers, comments :
“On peut parler … d’une mystique de la sensation, c’est-a-dire d’une théologie expliquant suivant des principles scientifiques le phenomene du sentir, relié à la part de transcendance en l’homme.”
The difficulty with any such theory is making the transition from the normal physical body and its sensations to the immortal soul. Early Christianity had the same problem which Saint Paul ‘solved’, at any rate to his satisfaction, by his notion of a ‘spiritual body’ which the individual would acquire at resurrection. This is still the official dogma — the Apostles’ Creed speaks of the “resurrection of the body” — but, in practice, Christianity soon reverted to the clearcut dualistic conception of Soul/Body with the two fighting against each other rather than cooperating. As Marcel Jouhandeau put it memorably:
“L’âme et le corps vivent longtemps l’un à l’autre enchaînés, comme deux ennemis. (…) C’est là tout le drame humain, unique de son espèce, dont la marque est d’être double” (“The soul and the body have for a longtime already been living like two enemies as if chained together. This is the crux of the human drama and is unique to our species : we live a kind of double life”)¹
Catherine Pozzi, like Blake, attempts to elaborate a sort of spiritualized pantheism which joins these two worlds. There is in her eyes more to ordinary sensation than one imagines since our current physiological reflexes are the result of a long evolutionary process : “l’homme ne résonne aux émissions de l’univers que parce que l’hérédité lui a transmis un patrimoine comprenant les accumulations de sentir du passé” (Malaprade). But Catherine Pozzi, like certain ‘New Age’ writers sees this process of sensation as originating in a ‘spiritual’ dimension to which it will eventually return. Wallace, who discovered the principle of evolution independently of Darwin and around the same time, in his later works put forward the idea that there was a spiritual dimension to evolution:
“It seems only logical to assume that the vast, the infinite chasm between ourselves and the Deity is to some extent occupied by an almost infinite series of grades of being, each successive grade having higher and higher powers in regard to the organization, development, and control of the universe” ².
We can trace a fragile counter-current to the official scientific fundamentalism in thinkers such as Wallace, Fechner, Sir Oliver Lodge and Dreisch and it is to this movement that Catherine Pozzi belonged, or aspired to belong. We find striking anticipations of Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of ‘morphic resonance’ in scattered ideas put forward in her Journals. But her attempt remains, as she herself realised, a mere project, a philosophic dream which contains inevitable contradictions. She exalts sensation rather than the individual who senses : this and her interest in reincarnation moves her towards the Buddhist camp. But Buddhism rejected not only the ego but the soul – it was at one time known as “the No-Soul Theory” – whereas the Western Christian tradition to which she belonged held on firmly to the concept of the soul. The soul is, in classical theology and philosophy, an individual : it is, for the mystic, the ‘real I’. Some attempt is made in her poems and other writings to develop the concept of a ‘transpersonal identity’, an ‘I’ which remains distinct though progressively merges into the divine soul. In this respect Catherine Pozzi’s theology is quite close to certain New Age authors. She was undoubtedly someone ahead of her time and paid the penalty.
¹ From “Réflexions sur la vie et le Bonheur” by Marcel Jouhandeau, a book he wrote two years later than his masterpiece, “Refléxions sur la Vieillesse et la Mort” (“Reflections on Old Age and Death”) that I am in the process of translating.
² The scientific community, then as now, was embarrassed by Wallace’s leanings towards spiritualism and this is one reason why his name is scarcely mentioned today whereas Darwin’s is blazoned everywhere. According to Jon Klimo, the author of Psychics, Prophets and Mystics (where I came across the above quote), Wallace believed that the higher grades “influenced the lower by means of telepathy as if all were taking place within a single mind”. Contemporary biologists, or, rather, theoreticians of biology, with the tiresome Dawkins in the lead, prefer to down-grade man as a mere carrier of genes — though this does not seem to have any chastening effect on their egos. S.H.