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O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(Bahá’u’lláhArabic Hidden Words No. 68)

The last post, after a brief review of the closing chapters of Ricard’s  excellent book Altruism, ended with the question of how we can ensure that enough of us will want to take effective steps to change things for the better before it is too late.

Something that should help is a growing awareness that growth cannot continue (page 658):

In the eyes of the politician Anders Wijkman and environmentalist Johann Rockström, there can be nothing more perverse than an economy that grows at the expense of the raw materials that allow it to exist: ‘The world’s population is growing. Consumption is growing. The only problem is that the earth is not growing.’ . . . .

In short, as the English-born American economist Kenneth Boulding said: ‘Those who believe that economic growth can go on forever are either mentally deranged or they are economists.’

Not all economists though fortunately.

There is, for example, a growing trend for economists to discard the treacherously misleading GDP as a good guide to whether we are doing all right or not. Because (page 660) ‘[i]t ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality’ it is worse then useless: it is leads to toxic decision-making. Its fundamental insanity is revealed by its inclusion as positives what are in fact evidences of dysfunction (page 667):

If a country has more crime, pollution, war, and disease, GDP increases as a result of financial transactions relating to expenditure in prisons, policing, weapons, and healthcare. This increase enters the accounts as a positive indicator of a growing economy, even though it represents a decline in well-being.’

Case closed, it seems to me.

YoungMonksDechencholing

Bhutan: for source of image see link.

There are better indicators than GDP in the process of development. Perhaps the most startling, and long-standing, is the gross national happiness index used in Bhutan (pages 664-71). Inspired by this approach, a Chilean economist has developed a model based on six principles:

  • The economy is to serve people and people are not to serve the economy;
  • Development is about people and not about objects;
  • Growth is not the same as development and development does not necessarily require a growth;
  • No economy is possible without the ecosystem’s services;
  • The economy is a subsystem of a larger and finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible;
  • Under no circumstances whatsoever can economic process, or interest, take precedence over the reverence of life.

Bhutan in the meanwhile is flourishing.

We are back to the main question: ‘How do we develop a sufficiently powerful motivator to reach a tipping point where positives such as this come within reach on a larger scale?’

Ricard acknowledges that (page 679) ‘we must . . . not underestimate the importance of personal transformation.’ From there we must move to the wider society within which we live and, in Ricard’s view (page 681), learn to balance what Mintzberg calls the three-legged stool of a ‘public sector made up of political forces…, a private sector made up of economic forces…, and a plural sector of social forces embodied by robust civilian conveyances.’ It is in the development of the latter that the UK and America, who over-emphasise the private sector, and China, who places too much importance on the public sector, are seriously lacking.

There is yet another step to take.

We must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

In this long and enthralling book, Ricard has used reason brilliantly to advocate altruism as the solution to our personal and global problems. That in itself makes it an essential read for those of us engaged in understanding these issues more deeply.

He would be the first to agree, I hope, that an intellectual conviction in altruism is not going to be sufficient to motivate enough people to rise to the level of sacrifice required for long enough to achieve the necessary effect. He ends his book, it seems to me, rather in the same trap as Rifkin did. And I’m afraid I have the same response, despite my admiration and respect for the compelling case he marshals in the seven hundred pages it took him five years to write.

Rifkin, as I quoted before in the earlier sequence, acknowledges this deficit. He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate motivating awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he refuses to acknowledge (page 170):

Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.

This basically material trigger may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Is it sufficient in itself though? Even if religion is not necessarily the enemy, and I believe it is not, do we need it?

The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin, or Ricard as well perhaps by implication, conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all we have to draw on, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that:

(a) this could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

None the less that is my view.

Pan of Arc

The Arc of Bahá’í Buildings on Mount Carmel

The Bahá’í position declares that it is necessary to draw upon both material and spiritual powers (Social Action):

An exploration of the nature of social action, undertaken from a Bahá’í perspective, must necessarily place it in the broad context of the advancement of civilization. That a global civilization which is both materially and spiritually prosperous represents the next stage of a millennia-long process of social evolution provides a conception of history that endows every instance of social action with a particular purpose: to foster true prosperity, with its spiritual and material dimensions, among the diverse inhabitants of the planet. A concept of vital relevance, then, is the imperative to achieve a dynamic coherence between the practical and spiritual requirements of life.

This same document unpacks the exact implications of that very clearly indeed:

When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided. Scientific knowledge, to take but one simple example, helps the members of a community to analyse the physical and social implications of a given technological proposal—say, its environmental impact—and spiritual insight gives rise to moral imperatives that uphold social harmony and that ensure technology serves the common good. Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.

From a Bahá’í point of view, it is from the fusion of both material and spiritual powers that the necessary understanding and motivation derive.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when that divine connection has been achieved, it seems to me, will we be able to answer the challenge issued by the Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, when the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were completed. The following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

The Bahá’í perspective shares Ricard’s awareness of the need to link the local through the national to the global (Social Action):

No matter how essential, a process of learning at the local level will remain limited in its effectiveness if it is not connected to a global process concerned with the material and spiritual prosperity of humanity as a whole. Structures are required, then, at all levels, from the local to the international, to facilitate learning about development.

And the international Bahá’í community offers, though admittedly at a very early stage of development, a model for how this might be done, and acknowledges at the same time that this will be the work of centuries and requires the whole-hearted involvement of all humanity and not just the Bahá’í community (Century of Light – page 94):

The immediate responsibility of establishing world government rests on the shoulders of the nation-states. What the Bahá’í community is called on to do, at this stage in humanity’s social and political evolution, is to contribute by every means in its power to the creation of conditions that will encourage and facilitate this enormously demanding undertaking.

Only when enough of us have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.

I am grateful to Ricard for having researched so diligently the evidence to support the absolute need for an altruistic response that can work at the individual, national and global levels. Without a world-wide commitment to such a model it will be impossible to address humanity’s challenges effectively.

The fourth Taráz concerneth trustworthiness. Verily it is the door of security for all that dwell on earth and a token of glory on the part of the All-Merciful. He who partaketh thereof hath indeed partaken of the treasures of wealth and prosperity. Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it. All the domains of power, of grandeur and of wealth are illumined by its light.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 38)

Altruism Black EarthIn October I posted a sequence of three articles reviewing the thinking of two contrasting writers: Timothy Snyder, an historian with an interesting message about the Holocaust and World War II in his book The Black Earth, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and neuroscientist with an impassioned and well-documented plea for altruism in his book of the same name.

I felt that the sequence of posts failed to do justice to the depth and extent of Ricard’s case and am therefore revisiting the final few chapters of his book in an attempt to put that right. It’s only fair to add that his book covers so much ground that all I can convey of his wealth of detail is a faint impression.

The System

Ricard radically questions the operational model of our acquisitive society. We are not homo economicus (page 564), ‘selfish agents’ out to promote ‘their own interests.’ We are potentially homo reciprocans with a desire to ‘cooperate’ and consider ‘the benefits to the community’ in what we do. He quotes Amartya Sen who wrote (page 565): ‘Taking universal selfishness as read may well be delusional, but to turn it into a standard for rationality is utterly absurd.’

He first quotes (page 566) Milton Friedman’s purblind declaration that any other policy for corporate officials than maximising the dividends of stockholders would ‘undermine the very foundations of our free society.’ The word ‘free’ there is of course doubly ironic: those who pay the true price of our society are anything but free. Then he follows up with Frans de Waal’s damning analysis: ‘Every advanced nation has had major business scandals [over the last 10 years] and in every case executives have managed to shake the foundations of our society precisely by following Friedman’s advice.’

He argues the evidence strongly suggests that the kind of regulation libertarians fear is conducive to economic growth (page 571). Their fantasy of a ‘free market economy,’ far from being stable, leads to global crashes. He quotes the research of Thomas Picketty, which demonstrates that, even in-between crashes, none of the wealth realised by the elite trickles down to the less well off (page 572). And the unkindest cut of all came with 2008 crisis: bankers walked off with bonuses while others, lower down this disgraceful pecking order, lost their homes and/or their jobs (page 573). It is not without significance that, between 1998 and 2008, the financial sector spent 5 billion dollars lobbying politicians in the States (page 574).

Having painted a dark picture of the way our system has worked up till now – and believe me I have only picked out a tiny number of his main points in this summary – he moves onto possible solutions.

First of all, using the address of the economics professor, Dennis Snower, to the Global Economics Symposium in 2012, he homes in on (page 578) our need to take proper account of two issues.

One is ‘collective/public goods:’ these include democratic freedoms, the state of the environment, and natural resources.

The other is ‘poverty in the midst of plenty.’

There are major obstacles to addressing this effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):

. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.

Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):

. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.

Emp CivilWe have been here before of course on this blog, in the consideration of Jeremy Rifkin’s solution to a similar dilemma. In his book The Empathic Civilisation, because he does not accept that there is a God of any kind and contends that theology is suspect, he chose what he calls ‘biosphere consciousness’ as the motivating factor (page 432):

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations spend the planet. Cosmopolitans are the early advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. . . .

For not dissimilar reasons perhaps in terms of persuading his readers, and obviously because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):

Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.

He goes on to argue for (page 583) an ‘economics of reciprocity,’ and quotes various examples, such as the Mondragon Corporation (pages 584-86) where ‘the members of the cooperative (on average 80%-85% of the total number of workers at each company) collectively own and manage the company.’ The best paid earn only six times more than the lowest paid compared to the 400 times more in some American companies. The founding of the company dates back to 1956, and it is still going strong.

Ricard also discusses the value of ‘socially responsible investing’ (SRI). He does not see such approaches as flawless, explaining (page 593) that some such investors, while avoiding tobacco and armaments, will still put our money into oil, gas or pharmaceuticals. He argues for developing this further (page 594) into ‘positive economy stock exchanges,’ and feels progress in this direction is being made by such ventures as the Social Stock Exchange in London, which finally opened in 2103.

The Individual

We live in an economy (page 606) which, to quote Victor Lebrow, ‘needs things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate. Tim Kasser’s research has demonstrated that consumerism reduces life satisfaction and habitual materialists (page 607) lack compassion, are exploitative of others and often lack close friends.

A particularly interesting set of findings that Ricard quotes, given the importance attached to trustworthiness in the Bahá’í Faith, concerns Denmark, where levels of satisfaction with living conditions is high (page 611):

It is not one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but there is very little poverty and inequality. [The high level of reported satisfaction] can be explained, among other things, by the high level of trust that people feel towards each other, including toward strangers and institutions: people’s natural instinct is to think that a stranger is kind. This trust goes hand-in-hand with a very low level of corruption.

Ricard raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. However, there are interesting dynamics at work here, rather similar to the one I have explored already in terms of prejudice.

personaluse2_6206924~A-South-African-Miner-Drives-a-Drill-into-Veins-of-Gold-Ore-on-the-South-African-Rand-Posters

South African Miner (for source of image see link)

When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the problem Ricard says we are still facing in terms of responding to climate change.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all ever: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

Ricard quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:

20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .

[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.

The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.

This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.

And that issue will be the focus of next Monday’s post.

Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

(Shelley from the Preface to The Cenci)

Where do I stand in all this?

I felt it necessary to bear most of these ideas I’ve discussed in the previous posts in mind, but at this point to focus on how best to define what I felt would be most useful to capture in terms of my future exploration of this topic. I also want to find a way of making sure to include what can best be termed the spiritual factors involved in creativity.

I have already looked at this in part in an earlier post.

The first key issue to note is that the reduction of genius to creativity is in danger of missing the point (page 425):

[T]he study of the real thing – “genius” – has largely degenerated in modern times into the study of diluted cognates such as “creativity” or even “talent” which happen to be relatively accessible to the more “objective” means of investigation currently favoured by most investigators.

A brief quote from a recent book should serve to illustrate what they are saying. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, in their treatment of the issue in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, define creativity as they see it (page 4):

In human behaviour, creativity refers broadly to generating new ideas, whereas innovation refers to changing the way in which things are done. Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behavior or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others.

It is immediately apparent that this is a long way short of what Myers is speaking about when he refers to genius (page 426):

In Human Personality vol 1, page 71, he writes of genius as: A power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought. . . . . [Inspiration] will be in truth a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being.

I accept that it is likely to be impossible to define in words the exact nature of the creative process when conceptualised in this way and at this level. However, I did feel initially that the best metaphoric model to capture it, from among all the somewhat tired analogies on offer, was likely to be an organic rather than mechanical one. I could see why the idea of volcanic eruption or fire was so appealing. I felt at first that it misses a crucial dimension: creation is a living rather than purely material process.

Does that mean I accept some kind of Freudian reduction of creativity to a purely sexual sublimation process? No it doesn’t. Jung’s break with Freud was over the excessive value the latter placed on sexuality as the ultimate explanation of everything about human behaviour. Jung felt passionately that this discounted the spiritual dimension.

So, no surprise then to those who have read some earlier posts. I’m for a model that is rooted in a non-reductive model of consciousness. Clearly though I had to find some way of bringing this down to earth so I could define the important variables and seek them in the experience of the artists we read about or in our own experience of creativity, whatever that may be.

I didn’t use the word earth by accident. So no prizes for guessing where I started from.

Our garden meadow

Schematic Presentation:

Any model I provisionally devised needed to account for the power of external triggers, conscious sensibility and subliminal processes to contribute to creativity. I perhaps also needed to distinguish, if at all possible, between influences that push the creative process (‘subliminal uprush’ might be one such) and those that pull on it (such as the sense of purpose in the artist).

Because it helped me think clearly I started with a pseudo-equation (Did I hear someone groan?), sketching out one possible model.

Seeds + Soil + Cultivation + (Sun+Rain) + Seasons = Harvest

a. Seeds are such things as activating stimuli from reading and experience: these are more likely to push than pull the process.

b. The Soil is the subconscious, which in an artist is particularly rich and accessible. The soil quality is probably the result of:

  • Genetic predisposition and congenital influences (push?);
  • Early experience (push);
  • Skill acquisition; and
  • Spiritual orientation (pull?).

c. Cultivation is anything, such as weeding or fertilizer, connected with the process of planting and later material influences of a human kind that nurture the growth of the artefact. These may come from the artist or from outside: this includes the facilitation of creativity by interactions with friends – good examples are how his association with Byron helped produce Julian & Maddalo and his wife Mary’s trigger to write Frankenstein. I have also made mention of David Gilmour. These are more likely to be push factors.

d. Sun and Rain are the cosmic processes not in human control. Their influence can be strengthened by consciously trying to connect with them, for example through nature, meditation or prayer. Probably these are pull factors.

e. The seasons, probably push factors, are to do with the timing of developmental triggers related to the creative process and not in our conscious control.

f. The harvest is the work of art. Harvesting is its production and publication and involves a degree of conscious organisation and selection to ensure the result is as good as it is possible to make it.

An excellent harvest (f) will not be possible without all the preceding stages/components. Without the careful and diligent exercise of conscious control under cultivation (c) and harvest (f) the art will earn Myer’s stricture concerning Blake – that the subliminal uprush has not sufficiently been subject to conscious control. With excessive and constricting conscious control, or in the absence/depletion of seeds (a), soil (b) or climate (d), the work will not resonate at the highest levels of great art.

The Dissolute Artist Problem

The operation of none of these factors depends upon the artist being in anyway anarchic in his personal life, although not following convention in any way that hampers the creative flow is an advantage. It can be tricky to distinguish between meaningless and unimportant conventions and core moral values. Transgressing the former will not damage and might even foster the quality of the art: transgressing the latter will probably damage the art, or at least stifle its full potential.

Ludwig Tuman, in his thoughtful book The Mirror of the Divine, shares insights that are helpful on this issue, though he is addressing a slightly different aspect of the problem. He argues (page 114-15):

The tension between artist and society is… resolved by recognising his right of self expression, and by recognising, too, that the freedom of the individual must be tempered with a sense of spiritual responsibility towards the community. In conclusion, the Bahá’í teachings would seem to condone neither of the two extremes found in the history of art: neither the extreme of suppressing the artist, for to do so transgresses against his rights as an individual: nor the other extreme of allowing him absolute license, for the rights of those who are affected by his work must also be taken into account.

Two Key Issues

There are at least two other key issues to be resolved.

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

1. How does one write with such a high intent without falling prey to Shelley’s strained and overwrought diction? (This is closely related to the issue of didacticism and dissonance, which I have dealt with already, so I won’t rehearse all that again here.) George Herbert manages not to sell his ideals short, where many others fail. Humility may be a key factor here.

It is possible that my misgivings about Shelley’s diction are misplaced. I say that in the light of Bahíyyih Nakhjavání’s article Artist, Seeker and Seer, which addresses almost the same issue. She writes:

Great art, therefore, is the expression of the soul’s glimpse of certitude in the double-lensed burning glass of an aesthetic structure commensurate with the patterns it perceives. To be great it must also seize us with an entirety that leaves no word untouched by wonder, no line untouched by light.

Maybe I’m just a pathologically understating Englishman cringing irrationally at the faintest hint of exaggeration! I leave that for you to decide. In the meanwhile, I will hold onto my doubts about Shelley’s high-flying style.

I perhaps need to clarify that this issue is not the same as the problem that some modern readers might have with what they could experience as an ‘archaic’ or ‘old-fashioned’ style. The latter problem is worth struggling to overcome as Shelley is in that case simply writing according to the conventions of his time and very effectively so at his best.

2. It might also be argued that empathy and art could clash if too much concern for family, friends and others distracts the artist from his work. However, if we take seriously the evidence Ricard adduces in his brilliant book Altruism, then it could be that compassion energises as well as bringing wisdom, suggesting that altruism, a disposition to consider the needs of others rather than a simple feeling state, and art would be deeply compatible to the great benefit of the art, and probably of the artist and of society as well. Presumably also the wider the compass of compassion and the stronger the disposition towards altruism, the greater the art will be.

Questions concerning the Model

In terms of a model of inspiration, various other questions arise. Should we be talking about triggers as the promoters of ‘subliminal uprush,’ or would the idea of pricking the membrane between consciousness and the subliminal be a better way of conceptualising it. This would make my soil model ineffective as an explainer. The subliminal could also be building up a kind of pressure that creates the possibility of its breaking through without a trigger – more like Byron’s laval image.

One Size will not Fit All

All of which inevitably leads me to feel that probably any one model of creativity is going to be too simplistic to cover all bases. I am reminded that Bahá’u’lláh, in conveying to us the nature and processes of the human heart, used at least three different images at different times: earth, fire and mirrors. I’ve explored these at length in an earlier sequence of posts.

The earth metaphor is relatively consistent in the Bahá’í Writings. The heart has or is soil in which spiritual qualities are to be planted, such as the hyacinth of wisdom or the rose of love. We need to weed it, seed it and tend it.

The mirror image is similarly consistent. Our heart, if polished and clean, will faithfully reflect what is placed before it, and it is advisable that we are turning it towards life enhancing aspects of experience, as well as keeping it clean.

Fire is slightly more complex in that it can be either the means of cleansing the heart, for example in the prayer which reads:

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.

Or of lighting its candle as in:

O BEFRIENDED STRANGER! The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with the contrary winds of self and passion.

This makes me fairly sure that the soil metaphor, which was influenced both by Bahá’u’lláh and by Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, has some value.

However, at times, as Byron and Shelley themselves testify, inspiration looks more like a volcano or a fire. So I think I have to find a way of factoring at least those two into the mix.

I realised then that I needed to see if Shelley’s writing contained the idea of a mirror anywhere in this kind of context before I simply began pulling that in as well.

shrine-mirror

Shelley and the Mirror

It was no surprise to find, in Shelley’s The Defence of Poetry, many references to the idea of a mirror linked to poetry.

After explaining (Duncan Wu’s Romanticism: page 946) that ‘poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’ Shelley goes onto add that, for him, ‘language . . . . is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being’ than other more plastic or acoustic forms of art.

Presumably, to reconcile this with Iain McGilchrist’s view of right-brain holistic experience as being inherently inexplicable, Shelley simply means that poetry succeeds best in communicating with verbal consciousness because it has translated ineffable inner experience into musico-metaphorical terms that get as close as possible to transmuting those experiences into a form that left-brain language doesn’t have to decode before trying to understand them.

The key point that Shelley goes on to make is probably more crucial. He distinguishes rightly between ‘conception’ (an interesting word as it can mean an idea or a moment when the birth process is initiated) and ‘expression.’ He sees them both as means of ‘communication’ for the ‘light’ to use, but the conception is a ‘mirror which reflects’ that light, whereas expression is a ‘cloud which enfeebles it.’ He seems to be privileging language over other means as a communicator, in a way which I’m not sure I yet understand[1].

Shelley goes onto describe (page 947) ‘[a] poem [as] the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.’ He sees prosaic accounts as ‘epitomes’ or summaries stripped of their essential core and therefore subject to the corrosion of time. Poetry, however, ‘forever develops new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains.’ His conclusion is that:

A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful; poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

There are two other less relevant references to mirrors in The Defence before Shelley reaches his triumphant conclusion (page 956):

Poets are the hierophants [expounders] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

This clearly suggests that even the poet does not know the full import of what he says. He is simply a channel for meanings beyond his reach.

I think that just about clinches it. I have to draw on all three metaphors.

neardeathexperience

For source of image see link

Overarching Assumptions

There is the possibility for two overarching assumptions to any model I then create.

(1) If there is no transcendent realm, then we might only need to adapt McGilchrist’s concept of right-brain holistic, metaphorical, nonlinear kinds of processing, which create experiences irreducible to language. These processes frequently occur beneath awareness and produce new insights, sometimes quite complex, that surprise. We still would need to prepare the ground, protect the flame or shine the mirror to foster such experiences, enable us to see the truth at some level of our being, and permit it to enter fully into consciousness. None of this would require moral rectitude or spiritual development as an essential or even important component.

(2) If there is a transcendent realm, then all of the above would apply but also, moral rectitude/spiritual development would be an essential prerequisite for the highest levels of achievement.

At this point I have no intention of pretending that my tripartite model is correct. I merely want it to be useful as a lens through which to examine other creative lives and the art they have produced.

My assumption for now is going to be that, while it is theoretically possible for the transcendent realm, which I believe is there, to seed the soil of an artist’s subconscious, be reflected in the mirror of his consciousness or shine from the lamp of his mind to illuminate the present, I am going to be very cautious before concluding that any significant work of art I examine will provide evidence of any such thing.

I am going to be more confident of supposing that the greatest works of art are partly the product of subliminal processes of some kind, and I want to understand more clearly what they might be.

I also would like to believe that great art will teach us something of value to improve our daily lives, perhaps by connecting us with nature, enabling us to understand other human beings better, or showing us how to bring more beauty into the world. I will be looking for evidence of that, most probably in the art form I understand best – poetry.

Exactly how and when the metaphors of earth, fire and mirrors should be applied is going to be an empirical one, I feel, and I shouldn’t leap at this point to claim I have an integrated model.

Art and the Artist – a final thought

As a final thought, this whole process has led me to believe that as Shelley matured as a man, through personal suffering, key friendships and exposure to testing events in the politico-social sphere, he also matured as a poet. I feel that there is therefore a relationship between the development of the person and the development of the art which is not reducible to a question simply of skill acquisition.

The blind spots of the human being limit the reach of the art. However, because the impaired vision of the artist can be more penetrating than mine, even a flawed artist can open my eyes to truths unavailable otherwise to me. It saddens me to realise how much more such an artist would have achieved with more focus on his or her own spiritual and moral development. Defying pointless convention is one thing: debasing yourself is quite another. We all need to get better at telling the difference.

Let’s see where my next exploration leads me, whenever that will be!

Footnote:

[1] He wrote: ‘For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments, and conditions of art have relations among each other, which limit and interpose between conception and expression. The former is as a mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediums of communication.

Another thoughtful article, in which Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire explore how to develop creativity as a habit and a style of engaging with the world, dropped into my mailbox this week from the Greater Good website.  Their book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire (Perigee Books, 2015), looks intriguing.  I resonated to the recommendations which emphasised solitude, daydreaming and mindfulness as fosterers of creativity, though I still recoil from a conflation of intuition with fast processing, for reasons I’ve explained at length elsewhere. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

What exactly is creativity? So many of us assume that creativity is something we had as a child but we lost, or something allocated to rarified individuals that we can only admire from afar.

Adapted from <a rel=“nofollow” href=“http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0399174109/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0399174109&linkCode=as2&tag=gregooscicen-20&linkId=ABBVJTCOH3PI75MX”><em>Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind</em>, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire (Perigee Books, 2015)</a>But science has shown that, in many ways, we are all wired to create. The key is recognizing that creativity is multifaceted—on the level of the brain, personality, and the creative process—and can be displayed in many different ways, from the deeply personal experience of uncovering a new idea or experience to expressing ourselves through words, photos, fashion, and other everyday creations, to the work of renowned artists that transcends the ages.

Neuroscientists who study creativity have found that creativity does not involve a single brain region or even a single side of the brain, as the “right brain” myth of creativity suggests; instead, it draws on the whole brain. This complex process consists of many interacting cognitive systems (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions, with different brain regions recruited to handle each task and to work together as a team to get the job done.

The discovery of the “default network” of the brain—the part of the brain at work when we are not purposefully engaged in other tasks—is one of the most important recent discoveries in neuroscience. The default network enables us to construct personal meaning from our experiences, imagine other perspectives and scenarios, comprehend stories, and reflect on mental and emotional states—both our own and those of others.  It should come as no surprise then that the activity of this network—as we like to call it, the “imagination network”—also informs our most creative ideas.

The “executive attention” network of the brain is also crucial to creativity, however. Executive control processes support creative thinking by helping us deliberately plan future actions, remember to use various creative tactics, keep track of which strategies we’ve already tried, and reject the most obvious ideas. They also help us focus our imagination, blocking out external distractions and allowing us to tune into our inner experiences.

When we generate new ideas, these networks—along with the salience network, which is responsible for motivation—engage in a complex dance. Researchers have observed this cognitive tango in action through the brain scans of people engaged in their personal creative processes. Initially, their brain states resemble a state of flow or complete absorption in the task. The imagination and salience networks are highly active, while the more focused executive domain is relatively quiet. However, as creative people further hone and refine their work, the executive attention network becomes increasingly more active.

Creative people are particularly good at exercising flexibility in activating and deactivating these brain networks that in most people tend to be at odds with each other. In doing so, they’re able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought—cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous. Even on a neurological level, creativity is messy.

So, what can we do to augment this cognitive flexibility? In our book, Wired to Create, we explore how to develop creativity as a habit, a way of life, and a style of engaging with the world. We present many paradoxes—mindfulness and mind wandering, openness and sensitivity, solitude and collaboration, play and seriousness, and intuition and reason—that contribute to the creative process. We encourage people to embrace their paradoxes and complexities and open up to a deeper level of self-understanding and self-expression. It is precisely this ability to hold the self in all of its dimensional beauty that is the very core of creative achievement and creative fulfillment.

Here are the some of the habits of mind we recommend to foster more creativity in your life.

Hints of Wood Smoke v2

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

This is an age when the poet is not the only seer we have on earth, but is the seer particularly endowed to sing of what he sees.

(Bahíyyih Nakhjavání in Artist, Seeker and Seer)

At the end of the previous post I had come to the conclusion that in the poem Julian & Maddalo we are not seeing ‘subliminal uprush’ at its deepest and best. This is rather eloquence fuelled by a personal feeling state and not much more. Shelley has not broken through to a new level of consciousness, he has merely been spurred to find a new vehicle through which to express his conscious convictions and self-justifications. Therefore, it follows, that we as readers will tend to remain undisturbed by it within our own existing frames of reference. No ‘solving for the unknown’ then.

This is, I think, very different from the situation we now encounter in the next two poems.

The Mask of Anarchy – the Music

First of all, does its music match its meaning?

A good place to look is a key moment of transition in the poem. In an earlier post I have quoted the opening lines that lead to our first sight of Anarchy riding along exulting in his power and the adulation of his followers. Then things are about to shift.

Then all cried with one accord,
“Thou art King, and God, and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!”

And Anarchy, the skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education,
Had cost ten millions to the nation.

For he knew the palaces
Of our kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown, and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.

So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned parliament,

When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair;
And she cried out in the air;

“My father, Time, is weak and grey
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!

“He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me–
Misery! oh, Misery!”

Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses’ feet,
Expecting with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.

Ship STC
This is a completely different verse form from that of Julian and Maddalo. This is ballad metre, the verse form of the people not the elite, similar, it is interesting to note, to the metre Coleridge chose for his masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Michael Schmidt, in his massive overview of poetry in English – Lives of the Poetsastutely remarks (page 384):

This is not the language of the ballad. Ballad was beyond the aristocratic populist. He can write directly, but on his own terms which are – in his view – universal. Ballad is rooted in the tribal and rural; this poem addresses an urban populace, a proletariat.

It tells a story well. Written in this way, the language is plain and accessible to all. The rhythm and the rhymes are strong, perfect for the forceful and dark anger of this poem, but also capable of carrying the depth of compassion for the oppressed it also includes. The repeating rhythm is like a hammer or a drum beating the meaning into our skulls.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

I have no doubt about this. The outrage Shelley feels against the atrocity of the massacre is one almost everyone would share as is the feeling that a strong protest needed to be registered in as many ways as possible.

In this poem, though, Shelley took his own understanding and that of his audience to a completely new level. After the intervention of a mysterious power,

. . . the prostrate multitude
Looked — and ankle deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien . . .

The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. It is perhaps no accident that here we have another ‘maniac.’ She describes the forces arrayed against them before she advises them how to respond:

“Let the fixed bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood,
Looking keen as one for food.

“Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.”

The combination of a powerful theme and a new understanding make this poem great in this respect at least. I feel the combination of that with a strong but accessible verse form, brilliantly managed, makes this a great work of inspired poetry.

The Inspiration

So, now I need to look at the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

It is undoubtedly the trauma of Peterloo that triggered this poem, though it was also fed from years of mulling over in prose and poetry the political ideas that underpin its message.

The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to the outrage of Peterloo. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):

His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.

That a poem of this length and quality was written in a mere 12 days suggests something of the subliminal pressure that might have been behind it. It is not just the speed though that suggests the inspiration of the poem goes beyond the kind of emotional reaction that fuelled Julian and Maddalo.

He avoids repellent didacticism, even though the poem clearly has a message. The message is rooted in a vividly created situation. There is a narrative and the characters, even though symbolic, have a physical presence that is conveyed by few but telling details – ‘skeleton,’ ‘palsied’ ‘ankle-deep in blood’ etc. At the same time, amidst the horror and the outrage, he does not lose the music, moving between dissonance and grace as the occasion demands: in one stanza even we move from the dissonant half-rhyme of ‘. . . the prostrate multitude/Looked — and ankle deep in blood’ to the harmony of the long rhymes ‘Hope, that maiden most serene,/Was walking with a quiet mien . . .’

This is, for me, Right-Brain Poetry of a high order.

Just as importantly, he also does not capitulate to the dissonance of the events by making them all there is in the poem. Shelley manages to avoid this trap, which I described in an earlier post, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. I feel he has lifted his own consciousness and thereby become capable of lifting ours.

This makes the work far greater than the man. So, great art like this – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being. It can be written at great speed – too fast perhaps for conscious control to explain it completely – and yet break new ground and maintain a wide-angled perspective on events.

Dante0130

‘The Angels descending the Heavenly Ladder’ by Gustave Dore (for source of image see link)

Ode to the West Wind – the Music

First of all, does this poem’s music match its meaning?

Of all the poems I have chosen to consider, this is by far the most musical, the most purely lyrical.

The form is a mix of two – terza rima and an improvised sonnet structure. Terza rima is best known in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sonnet blend is achieved by dividing his poem into five fourteen-line sections, each ending as the Shakespearean sonnet does, with a couplet. I’ll quote the first section in full to illustrate:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

I feel Shelley is at his best when he constrains his impetuous turbulence within tight forms such as this and the ballad form of The Mask of Anarchy. The way Shelley uses this form evokes the gusts and eddies of the wind he addresses. Enjambments cross over stanza breaks, not just line breaks, and focus switches between the ends and beginnings of lines in mimicry of the wild wind’s switches of direction. Even the apparently clumsy parenthesis in the last triad serves to convey the hidden strain of new life bursting through once spring is here.

In all the succeeding sections the sense ebbs and flows in this same masterly fashion across line and triad breaks, the meaning and the music of the verse are so closely intertwined.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

I think so. Shelley is addressing one of the fundamental questions this whole sequence of posts is in part concerned with. What is art, in this case poetry, for? What is it supposed to do and how is it supposed to do it? For anyone concerned about the over-mechanised instrumental model of education that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our market-driven civilisation, there are few questions more important than this.

We need to leap to the last section to examine this further:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

It expresses a model of inspiration. After all that word comes from the same source as respiration and is linked to spirit as derived metaphorically from breath. It is vital to life. In this case there is a strong link made with attunement to Nature. In part, he sees the poet as an instrument that unseen powers play to produce harmony.

Comparing thoughts to autumn leaves unlocks other powerful implications. Thoughts, on this model, are the product of powerful natural processes involving soil, sunlight and rain. They are part of a natural cycle of creation, death, transformation and renewal. They are meant to fertilize new growth. Interestingly, in the light of the discussion in the next set of posts on a model of creativity, he switches metaphors from compost to fire. While wood ash will help in the processes of gardening, sparks of fire are clearly intended to set other minds aflame.

So, Shelley seems to see the poet’s role as nurturing within himself deep insights into truth, which have to be spread abroad by the same wind whose air has helped form them, so that new and deeper forms of thought may be created that will change the world, make it more beautiful. By ‘prophecy’ Shelley does not mean foretelling the details of the future, but tuning into the spirit of the age and helping shape the future by the intimations so received. Ann Wroe explains (page 312):

Poets, Shelley hastened to say, were not prophets ‘in the gross sense of the word.’ They could not foretell [events]. . . . . [But t]hey could not deny the Power that was ‘seated on the throne of their own soul’ . . . . . ‘For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time. [The quote is from A Defence of Poetry.]

How art is to do this remains an interesting implication. That he sees thought as leaves not seeds suggests that the artist’s work nourishes new growth that is inherent in reality. The seeds are there already waiting to be cared for, fed if you like. The world is fertile with constructive growth: the poet’s job is to make sure the seeds can grow. Our job is to tune into what he is saying and add the dead leaves of our own thoughts to the enriching layer of mulch. There is also here the implication of sadness and sacrifice. We won’t be able to contribute to this process by remaining in our comfort zone. The sacrifices of the artist are meant to inspire us in this respect as well.

Schmidt’s comment (page 386) is helpful here. He contrasts what he terms the ‘abstracting technique’ and a ‘process’ which ‘tends to particularise emotion.’ He spells out a key implication:

Between these two processes a crucial difference exists: the first constructs, the second interprets experience. Shelley’s most popular poems are in the latter category. He sees himself as a moral, not a didactic writer, seeking to ‘awaken’ and ‘enlarge’ the mind, and this he does best through experience, not through projection.

Perhaps it would be best to give Shelley the last word on this issue. In his Preface to The Revolt of Islam he explained  (Ann Wroe – pages 259-60):

I have sought to enlist the the harmony of metrical language, the ethereal combinations of the fancy, the rapid and subtle transitions of human passion, all those elements which essentially compose a poem, in the cause of a liberal and comprehensive morality; and in the view of kindling within the bosom of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for the doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation nor prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind.

Beech hedge

The Inspiration

Now I need to look at the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

Its source this time seems to be his sense of aging, though the immediate trigger was his experience of the powerful winds of Italy in autumn. The resonance we can get from nature, or other aspects of the environment, can help pierce the membrane which separates us from the subliminal, while not being in themselves traumatic events. They simply connect us to our depths by what they represent.

This makes it even more likely that the main source of the poem’s power is from ‘subliminal uprush.’ There is no association with a community of minds behind it in the same way as there was with Julian and Maddalo. There is no dramatic event such as the massacre of Peterloo fuelling an outrage that seeks an outlet in poetry. There simply seems to have been a strong and sudden sense of what his life as a poet should mean, which poured out rapidly in a specially created form, whose solemn music and rich imagery contain a wealth of implications for the rest of us to reflect upon at length, spending more time reading and re-reading it than he did on composing it at the time. For me the poem pushes the boundaries of my understanding of the nature of poetry and its purpose: this is because, in his struggle to capture his own emergent conception, he has seized on a rich vein of imagery with a multitude of penetrating implications, some of which I have tried to explore.

It is probably only fair to add that all three poems probably have a kind of composting gestation of subliminal influence behind them as well, something I have referred to once or twice but not analysed in detail.

Next Monday takes me to the more difficult bit.

… the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may be assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tulman in Mirror of the Divine page 118)

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

The last two posts tackled first the question of what makes a poem before looking at various models of creativity. Now I want to take a closer look at Shelley.

Key Issues

Perhaps the first thing to do is summarise what seem to be the key issues for Shelley’s career as a poet specifically before closing in on three of his poems.

First of all there are a number of contradictory elements that almost certainly led to significant inner conflict:

  1. Almost everyone would agree that Shelley’s character had serious flaws, not least his tendency to violence, his lack of empathy and his casual disregard for the debts he owed to people who could ill-afford to incur them. A telling late example of his oblivion to other people’s legitimate concerns comes in Ann Wroe’s account of a boating incident where he took Jane Williams, a close companion, and her two babies, out on the water in a coracle (page 177-78). He was plainly pre-occupied with death as he gazed interminably into the water. Jane did her best to distract him, but when, in the end, he said he could easily discover the meaning of death by rocking the coracle, Jane had the presence of mind to say, ‘No, thank you; not now. I should like my dinner first, and so would the children.’ When they got back safely on land, ‘Shelley seemed unaware that he had said, or done, anything remotely strange.’ The sad irony is that his final possible acts of recklessness in his boat killed not only Shelley himself but also her husband.
  2. He also had great positive qualities, not least the courage to publicise his idealistic vision of society at a time when to do so was extremely dangerous, even for someone of his privileged background. His attitude towards authority had its roots both in his later fractious relationship with his father, but possibly earlier in what seems to have been his insensitive, even brutal treatment at the hands of most of his teachers.
  3. In his personal life he was both victim, for example of bullying at school, and victimizer, for instance in his treatment of Miss Hitchener and his first wife, Harriet.
  4. In his work he wrestled both with forging a language to describe the mind as well as using language to raise political awareness. I don’t think it’s forcing the issue to suppose that he saw fruitful parallels between what he experienced within his mind and what he saw happening in society around him.

Holmes (page 5): ‘All his life, Shelley was to detest violence and the various forms of ‘tyranny’ which it produced. Yet the exceptional violence in his own character, the viciousness with which he reacted to opposition, was something he found difficult to accept about himself.’

The paragraph that summarises the consequences of all this early trauma concludes (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile.

Holmes feels that the character of the monster in Mary’s Frankenstein was drawn in part from Shelley and that expressions such as (page 333) ‘ . . . misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous,’ from the monster, capture something of his psychodynamics.

Clairmont in 1819, painted by Amelia Curran (for source of image see link)

Clairmont in 1819, painted by Amelia Curran (for source of image see link)

Claire Clairmont, to whom Shelley was closer than to anyone else in the world at that point, wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

It seems highly likely that the conflicts, by the discomfort of the dissonance they created, pushed him to resolve them, if he could, through poetry. Previous posts have looked at suffering and inner conflict as drivers of development to higher levels of consciousness. It seems likely that a poet would use poetry to help this process. This, in Shelley’s case, was further facilitated by certain external triggers that were not necessarily stressful.

There is also, of course, the separate issue of his temperament, which provided the unstable context for all those conflicts. He was clearly excitable, even at times hysterical, which may have had something to do with his reckless impetuosity. In one single page (169) of her account, Ann Wroe uses the following words to describe him: ‘imperious,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘impetuous,’ and ‘self-willed.’ This perhaps goes some way to explain his rapid shifts of commitment to people as well as to ideas. His intense involvement with today’s soul mate, which drew people to him and caused them to forge strong attachments, could change almost overnight to indifference or even outright rejection. He left a lot of emotional damage in his wake, even though his avowed intention was to harm no one.

This relates to the caveat that FWH Myer’s had about the poetry of Blake (Irreducible Mind: page 445):

Myers. . . . . regards Blake as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: “throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow” (Human Personality, vol 1, page 73).

According to Holmes, Shelley’s emphasis on love is marred by two very major blemishes (page 207-08):

The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations… His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship

What he learnt from observing his impact on others may eventually have helped him mellow the initially extreme impatience of his political perspective.

For example (page 288):

In the effort to face his certain aspects of himself, his attempts and failures to set up constant and happy relations with those around him, he made a breakthrough into a new kind of reflective writing.

He was also passionately curious about many different areas of human concern, from poetry through psychology and science to philosophy and the translation of classics such as Plato’s Symposium. This seemed to be feeding the subliminal processes connected with his art. [It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.]

In terms of what was at the time the controversial issue of his atheism, perhaps the closest we can get is the description of his beliefs in Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu (page 820):

In truth, Percy’s attitude to God was more complex than the word ‘atheist’ suggests. It is not surprising that the concept was inimical to someone so opposed to an established church not merely complicit, but deeply implicated, in the social and political oppression prevalent in England at the time. On the other hand, he was tremendously attracted to the pantheist life force of Tintern Abbey, and could not resist pleading the existence of a similar power in his poetry. However, he stopped well short of believing in a benevolent deity capable of intervening in human affairs.

In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’

Shelley’s own prose comment is illuminating (page 639), Epipsychidion:

. . . . is an idealised history of my life and feelings. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood avoid it, consists in seeking an immortal image and likeness of what is perhaps eternal.

My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that emotionally he believed he was connected to what felt like transcendent forces: intellectually he couldn’t allow himself to entertain the idea that these forces had anything to do with the God his contemporaries believed in.

Similar to Sir Philip Sidney, he continues to see (Holmes – page 642) ‘the function of poetry as a moral and political one, rather than as a purely literary one,’ and defines the moral function of poetry as (page 643) putting ‘himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He sees poetry as strengthening that function.

Interestingly, when it came to Shelley’s reaction to the death of Keats in Italy from consumption, his ability to empathise with the reality of Keats’s situation was deeply flawed (page 648):

It is transparent . . . that Shelley was not thinking in any realistic way about Keats’s reaction to any review of 1818, but rather of his own reaction to the quarterly attack on himself in 1819.

What I also need to mention is that, in my view, apart from a significant number of relatively short lyrics, his greatest poetry can only be found in a very small number of his longer more ambitious works. That is why the focus of my consideration of his poetry will be on trying to detect what combination of factors came together to create his masterpieces. I am going to assume that the uneven, or even poor quality of his other long poems needs no explanation except that the necessary combination of truly creative factors was absent or at best intermittent and/or that the necessary control of subliminal material was also missing. I have already indicated that I would be avoiding the dramatic poetry and focusing on shorter more lyrical pieces.

Holmes ShelleyShelley’s Poems

For present purposes it seems to me that there are three poems of Shelley’s that probably fall within the criteria I’ve set for great lyric poetry and lie within my competence to assess. They also offer contrasting possibilities in terms of the sources of their inspiration and their relationship to Shelley’s preoccupations.

I recognise that I have made this decision relatively quickly and largely on the basis of secondary sources. I haven’t done what both Holmes and Wroe have clearly done, which is saturated themselves for a long period of time, not just in Shelley’s poetry, but also in all his available notebooks, letters and formal prose. However, I am intending this to be the start of a journey and if I waited until I’ve had time to read all that, assuming I was interested enough in Shelley in his own right to complete such a mammoth task, the first step would probably never be taken.

So, I’m going to blast on anyway. Let’s see if it all stands up to closer inspection. I have the impression, possibly the illusion that I’m heading in the right direction.

I need to look at each of these poems in turn, first in terms of their quality (i.e. musicality, significance, ambition and solving for the unknown) before looking at them in terms of their process of inspiration.

Julian and Maddalo – the Music

First of all, does the music of this poem match its meaning?

I feel there is no doubt that Shelley’s command of music in Julian and Maddalo has greatly advanced:

This ride was my delight. I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be;
And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
More barren than its billows; and yet more
Than all, with a remembered friend I love                         20
To ride as then I rode;–for the winds drove
The living spray along the sunny air
Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare,
Stripped to their depths by the awakening north;
And from the waves sound like delight broke forth
Harmonizing with solitude, and sent
Into our hearts aërial merriment.

He plays with full and half-rhymes. The language for the most part is simple and direct, but changes syllabic groupings with a lightness of touch and delicate shifts of mood: ‘I love all waste’ with its monosyllables and teasing line break (why would he love waste, for heaven’s sake?) shifts into ‘And solitary places.’ This builds up by the long sounds of ‘waste,’ ‘taste’ and ‘see’ (the latter with its reminder of ‘sea’) to a sense of the ‘boundless,’ which then triggers the brilliant leap into the transcendent desire of ‘as we wish our souls to be.’ I won’t bore you with more probably unnecessary commentary.

He sustains this level for almost all the poem, weaknesses such as ‘aërial merriment’ remaining relatively rare, but perhaps not quite rare enough.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

We get a sense from very early on that this poem is not going to be a superficial or trivial one:

Of all that earth has been, or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint, or suffering may achieve,
We descanted; and I (for ever still
Is it not wise to make the best of ill?)
Argued against despondency, but pride
Made my companion take the darker side.
The sense that he was greater than his kind                       50
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
By gazing on its own exceeding light.

I accept that simply stating that they talked about almost everything of any importance may be no more than an ironic boast, but there are hints that the intention is not only serious, but that we are also in the hands of a poet who could potentially deliver. The astute analysis of the companion’s character and the sardonic tone here, that we know Shelley was able to command and sustain powerfully over the 14 lines of the sonnet Ozymandias, should give us hope that he can hold this level for longer.

Does the poem aspire to lift my consciousness, help me solve for the unknown?

The next development of the poem suggests that the issue of deciding what to believe is at the core of the poem, and is therefore a theme that could potentially be intimately related to lifting levels of consciousness as high as possible:

                                         . . . .  said Maddalo;
‘You talk Utopia.’ ‘It remains to know,’
I then rejoined, ‘and those who try may find                     180
How strong the chains are which our spirit bind;
Brittle perchance as straw. We are assured
Much may be conquered, much may be endured
Of what degrades and crushes us. We know
That we have power over ourselves to do
And suffer–what, we know not till we try;
. . . . . . .                   190
‘My dear friend,’
Said Maddalo, ‘my judgment will not bend
To your opinion, though I think you might
Make such a system refutation-tight
As far as words go. I knew one like you,
Who to this city came some months ago,
With whom I argued in this sort, and he
Is now gone mad,– . . . . .’

The interest of the poem does not stop there. It contains, for example, ideas concerning the nature of the soil of experience from which poetry springs (Holmes – page 456):

Maddalo recalls the power of [the Maniac’s] language, . . . . .

And I remember one remark which then
Maddalo made. He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

Holmes (page 457) feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement.

Through the Maniac’s monologue, the poem questions what many of us also question, the reason for our suffering:

‘What Power delights to torture us? I know                       320
That to myself I do not wholly owe
What now I suffer, though in part I may.
Alas! none strewed sweet flowers upon the way
Where, wandering heedlessly, I met pale Pain,
My shadow, which will leave me not again.
If I have erred, there was no joy in error,
But pain and insult and unrest and terror;
I have not, as some do, bought penitence
With pleasure, and a dark yet sweet offence . . .

I accept that the abstractions Shelley litters across the last lines – ‘error,’ ‘insult and unrest and terror’ – weaken the force of the passage. He has still not shaken off this habit of straining into the abstract for effect. But he is certainly beginning to master his medium.

He is also probing, at the personal level here, issues that have relevance to society as a whole and the politics that plays out at that level:

As some perverted beings think to find
In scorn or hate a medicine for the mind
Which scorn or hate have wounded–oh, how vain!
The dagger heals not, but may rend again!

He goes on to plead that they do not believe:

. . . . . that I will join the vulgar cry;
Or with my silence sanction tyranny;
Or seek a moment’s shelter from my pain
In any madness which the world calls gain,
Ambition or revenge or thoughts as stern
As those which make me what I am; or turn
To avarice or misanthropy or lust.

Shelley is clearly using a story of personal pain to make a political point. This poem for me represents a blend of the personal/psychological and the political, making it therefore an ambitious enterprise – perhaps too ambitious, hence its failure to deliver consistently on its intentions. It helps us see perhaps from where the power of the other two poems I’m going to look at partly derives: The Mask of Anarchy is focused exclusively on the politics while Ode to the West Wind sticks with the personal.

This blend or fusion continues even as the Maniac rants against his fate at the hands of the woman he loved:

But me, whose heart a stranger’s tear might wear
As water-drops the sandy fountain-stone,
Who loved and pitied all things, and could moan
For woes which others hear not, and could see
The absent with the glance of fantasy,
And with the poor and trampled sit and weep,
Following the captive to his dungeon deep;
Me–who am as a nerve o’er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of this earth,                      450
And was to thee the flame upon thy hearth,
When all beside was cold:–that thou on me
Shouldst rain these plagues of blistering agony!

I sense that we see here exactly how the character of the Maniac in this poem speaks for Shelley’s own self-dramatising perspective on the world, where he is the victimised but noble ally of the oppressed. This perspective has power in its compassion for the wretched and is deeply flawed in its self-pity. This seems to me the Shelley problem, from which I can never quite escape when I read most of his poetry. It is rooted in his early experiences, as we saw when we looked at his life.

I think, then, that this poem, in its intentions at least and probably in its achievement just about matches the criteria set for what we are terming a ‘great’ poem. To be fair, I have to acknowledge that Duncan Wu’s 1000-page anthology of romantic poetry does not include even a mention of this poem, let alone a quotation from it. He clearly does not number it among Shelley’s greatest achievements. I accept that it has its flaws, the main one for me being the overlong ‘Maniac’s’ monologue.

Let’s see how far I can get exploring the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

So what triggered it?

In Julian and Maddalo the inspiration is largely derived from social interaction.

It was in Venice in 1819, as a result of Shelley’s deepening relationship with Lord Byron, that Holmes feels we begin to see appearing what was ‘the first of Shelley’s masterpieces’ (page 449): Julian and Maddalo.

This close friendship with Byron, who would seem to have probed the weaknesses of Shelley’s philosophy of life in a way that Shelley could not ignore because of his admiration for Byron as a poet, had apparently triggered something of a crisis in him and fired up the need to find a way of asserting his sense of reality but from behind the protection of a mask.

What I am not completely sure of is whether he is simply seeking to justify his position or whether he has been spurred to explore it. My money is on his having felt stung to defend his worldview. The poem would have been greater had he been able to rise to the challenge of exploring it.

The poem, via Maddalo’s comment on the Maniac, also suggests that the pain Shelley was suffering in his personal life at the time had also played its part in the generation of the poem. This might explain why the suffering of the Maniac is so central a theme and why Shelley at this point is unable to place it in perspective. We have only his word that he is more sinned against than sinning, and we are expected to accept his values on trust as right and noble.

I have come to the conclusion that in this poem we are not seeing ‘subliminal uprush’ at its deepest and best. This is rather eloquence fuelled by a personal feeling state and not much more. Shelley has not broken through to a new level of consciousness, he has merely been spurred to find a new vehicle through which to express his conscious convictions and self-justifications. Therefore, it follows, that we as readers will tend to remain undisturbed by it within our own existing frames of reference. No ‘solving for the unknown’ then.

This is very different from the situation we encounter in the next two poems, I think, which I will look at next Monday.

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