Genius as the Norm
Given the butterfly nature of my brain it seemed best to approach the chapter on genius by Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso in Irreducible Mind from different angles. So this is one of a series of posts, each on an aspect of the topic.
Something that leapt out at me about the authors’ treatment of this theme was the idea that genius would eventually be the norm (page 476):
Myers portrays genius as the norm of the future, representing a condition of improved psychic integration. The genius thus stands for him among the vanguard of an evolutionary track which humanity as a whole is pursuing . .
Myers picks up on this idea in the context of the then contemporary and vexed debate about the exact relationship between ‘genius’ and ‘madness’ (page 426):
[Myers] . . . characterised hysteria as a disintegrative or “dissolutive” process involving loss of control of normally supraliminal elements of the personality. Genius for Myers presents the opposite situation. Specifically, in genius an increased “strength and concentration of the inward unifying control” results in enhanced coordination and integration of the supraliminal and subliminal phases of personality. . . . . Genius represents the evolution of personality toward a more ideal form of psychic functioning, and therefore toward a truer standard of “normality.”
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.
The diagram at the head of this post is my latest attempt to capture the ‘subliminal stream’ pictorially in what is for me the counterintuitive sense that, while we experience the material world vividly as though it were all that there is and it surrounds us completely, the opposite is possibly true: it is a tiny part of reality as a whole, and our perception of it is internally generated and adapted for our physical survival only, while our perception of that far greater transcendent reality seeps into our consciousness from below filtered through the funnel of our personal residue of subconscious material.
Myers’s final position is made very clear (page 471):
… genius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service and supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.
Irreducible Mind is unequivocal about the need for us to move further forward in our systematic investigation of the exact relationship between the two, and I may return to this topic at some point, but I need for now to look more deeply into the notion that everyone could potentially be a genius in future.
This isn’t the first time I’ve met this kind of idea of course.
To begin with, for me at least, something like it is a core part of the Bahá’í concept of humanity’s future. Shoghi Effendi places this idea within the Bahá’í framework (World Order of Bahá’u’lláh – page 202):
The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood. Then will the human race reach that stature of ripeness which will enable it to acquire all the powers and capacities upon which its ultimate development must depend.
Man must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moralities, new capacities. New bounties, bestowals and perfections are awaiting and already descending upon him.
My memory tells me that Bahá’u’lláh wrote words to the effect that the child of the future will be as intelligent at the adult of now. Unfortunately I haven’t yet been able to trace that quote again. I’ll keep looking!
In addition, it is clear that evolutionary theory is beginning to address this issue as well. I have blogged about the work of Robert Wright before, after reading his fascinating book The Evolution of God. I was intrigued to find that Irreducible Mind also quotes him (page 602):
Commentator Robert Wright (1999)… while explicitly denying that evolution is directed specifically towards us – Homo sapiens – points out that the average complexity of species has in fact risen in general, driven by competitive pressures (“arms races”) within and between species, and that mammalian lineages in particular have tended toward increased “braininess.” Certain useful properties such as vision and flight have also been reinvented repeatedly during the course of evolution, and Wright explicitly proposes that similar built-in tendencies may exist with respect to higher order properties, such as intelligence, altruism, and love, that are of course central to Myers’s vision.
We are not just talking here about intellectual capacities but spiritual qualities also, though he may not quite go as far as I would like in accepting a transcendent realm.
How could this work?
This is where the chapter on genius becomes particularly fascinating (page 477):
Genius… effects fuller “cooperation of the submerged with the emergent self and in this way it expresses a nisus (striving or drive) to greater psychic integration or wholeness that Myers sees as a fundamental property of human nature
The authors are well aware that others have struggled to articulate similar ideas, not least Carl Gustav Jung with his notion of individuation. However, they clearly feel that Myers’s model is the most satisfactory and is strongly linked to the concept of evolution (page 480:
[Myers wrote] “Man is in course of evolution,” . . . and “it may be in his power to hasten his own evolution in ways previously unknown.” . . . . It follows from his general theory that any procedures which encourage increased but controlled interaction with the subliminal can potentially move us in the desired direction.
What might some of those procedures be?
They give Jung his due when they quote his explanation of one strong possibility (page 481):
For Jung … art provides more than aesthetic pleasure; indeed, to the extent that we can imaginatively involve ourselves in a great work of art we vicariously participate in the transformative, integrative process effected by its creator, and are in some measure transformed and integrated ourselves. Some such “resonance” effect may account, for example, for John Stuart Mill’s famous declaration that he was healed by reading Wordsworth’s poetry . . .
In a later post I will be clarifying how the core aspect of this theory of genius could have positive evolutionary implications, but for now I’m simply going to look at one teasing but seminal possibility which intrigues me as someone always interested in literature.
The writers feel there is a link between this developmental and integrative effect and the power of imagination. This is by no means a straightforward issue.
It’s one that Nancy Evans Bush tackles in her book on distressing NDEs. Bush explains, in Dancing Past the Dark that (Kindle reference 2919) ‘NDEs cannot be the territory they represent: they are signposts, arrows; maps written in symbol.’
We have to be careful though to distinguish two different categories of thought when we are talking about symbols (2923):
What is imaginary does not really exist but is made up, pretend, fantasy. What is imaginal, on the other hand, as . . . . . Joseph Campbell . . . . noted, “is metaphysically grounded in a dreamlike mythological realm beyond space and time, which, since it is physically invisible, can be known only to the mind.”
Imagery therefore can potentially link our language dependent minds with that which reality places beyond the reach of speech. We can attempt to apprehend and convey aspects of the ineffable. The trap is that imagination can feed delusion rather than promote insight. This may in part be from where Myers’s derives his paradoxical perception of the influx from the subliminal which my diagram above hints at (page 430):
Not all such products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).
This sounds like Yeats’s ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart:’ the heart, though potentially contaminated by our reptilian self, is for me also potentially the experience of soul in consciousness, the place Yeats was combing for signs of the anima mundi. The introduction to Albright’s edition of Yeats’s poetry explains (page xxi):
[Yeats] came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.
This therefore does not mean that we should dismiss all imagery and symbol out of hand as hallucinatory even if we should be wary of it too (page 455):
Imagination [for Coleridge] is organic and active; it assimilates, dissolves and recreates, fuses, synthesises, and unifies. It transmutes the chaos of raw materials provided by everyday experience, forging and shaping them by means of its inherent . . “alembic” . . . powers into truly novel creations that balance or reconcile seemingly opposite or discordant qualities in harmonious unity. It is above all a unique form of thought, and one of the principal powers human mind.
Coleridge sees imagination, not to be confused with ‘fancy,’ as working at the root of all perception (Romanticism edited by Duncan Wu – page 525):
The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception . .
Bahá’í Scripture has similar views about the dual potential of the human imagination.
On the one hand Bahá’u’lláh warns us of the traps that await us when we abuse imagination (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 58):
People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs. God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men.
On the other hand Bahá’í Scripture is also clear that imagination is a spiritual power (‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions – pages 201-11):
Man has . . . spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.
I am not sure whether imagination as such is included in the spiritual power that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is referring to in the following quotation. If it is it further reinforces Coleridge’s view of the imagination. If not, Myers’s view is still basically endorsed by Bahá’í Scripture in that both are describing some form of transcendent capacity in human beings to tune into dimensions of existence hidden from our basic senses (Some Answered Questions – page 186):
Though man has powers and outer senses in common with the animal, yet an extraordinary power exists in him of which the animal is bereft. The sciences, arts, inventions, trades and discoveries of realities are the results of this spiritual power. . . . It even perceives things which do not exist outwardly—that is to say, intellectual realities which are not sensible, and which have no outward existence because they are invisible; so it comprehends the mind, the spirit, the qualities, the characters, the love and sorrow of man, which are intellectual realities. Moreover, these existing sciences, arts, laws and endless inventions of man at one time were invisible, mysterious and hidden secrets; it is only the all-encompassing human power which has discovered and brought them out from the plane of the invisible to the plane of the visible.
What is even more exciting for me about this passage is that it seems to me to be endorsing what Myers is also arguing for: that art, and science too for that matter, progress largely by way of a process of inspiration from a subliminal realm, and that art is therefore potentially an instrument for personal and societal development and transformation – a key component of the process by which we are evolving towards our full potential.
There are many who would attempt to deny this and argue that great works of art, as well as scientific discovery, are purely the result of diligence augmented by automatic brain processes. I will be returning to this in more detail in a later post, but for now will limit myself to a quote from a republished book I recently purchased on the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Robert Bernard Martin (page 70):
[Hopkins] attempts to distinguish between the “first and highest” form of “poetry proper, the language of inspiration,” and that written by great poets when inspiration has failed them although their habitual level of high competence remains.
For the young Hopkins diligence was not enough to produce a true poem. Another ingredient was necessary, one that the modern mind would like to explain completely in terms of material processes but which Myers and William James, as we have seen in earlier posts, described as demanding a transcendental explanation. We will come back to that again soon in the context of genius and subliminal inspiration.
I am aware that the logic of this explanation may have been a touch hard to follow as I am to some degree working things out as I go, so a summary might help.
I believe the thinking that this post quotes is suggesting that humanity is evolving in a potentially dramatic way. The prediction is that our level of functioning will massively increase intellectually, creatively and spiritually.
This process is not purely a material one. In fact, in terms of its most important fruits, it is a spiritual one drawing on powers and insights from a transcendent realm of which most of us are for now only subliminally aware at best. The process triggers breakthroughs in both arts and sciences whose agents are described as geniuses.
The way both groups of geniuses, artist and scientist alike, access the subliminal stream that carries the necessary insights is seen by some to be assisted by the imagination, at least partly through the power of image and symbol. Exposure to products of artistic genius helps us enhance our powers and achieve higher levels of personal integration. Ultimately most of us will also be able to function at genius level when our civilisation peaks, if we do not destroy ourselves first, for we will then be able to draw inspiration from the same subliminal stream that genius accesses now.