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Archive for August 18th, 2014

'The False Mirror' by René Magritte

‘The False Mirror’ by René Magritte (all images from Magritte by Marcel Paquet, Taschen Edition)

I shall shortly have some sonnets to send you, five or more. Four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1885 to Robert Bridges, quoted in Robert Bernard Martin‘s A Very Private Life – page 383)

In the previous post of this pair, I looked at the case put forward in a key chapter of Irreducible Mind that, at the very least, genius depends heavily on unconscious processes. Now I need to tackle the more vexed question of whether it taps into a transcendent realm of reality. Things get a little more complicated from this point on, as well as perhaps more challenging for a modern mindset.

Myers’s Psychology of Creative Inspiration

For Myers, who was convinced that much more was going on below consciousness than the average materialist was prepared to stomach, describes the three components of subliminal uprush. The first is Continuity (page 430):

[For Myers] genius is first and foremost an intensification of phenomena already observable in germ in the central, supraliminal part of the mental “spectrum”, rather than some sort of supernatural gift of faculty altogether new. [Influx from the subliminal depends upon the permeability of the threshold between it and consciousness which is a dynamic process. ‘In genius… dynamic adjustments are somehow amplified, providing correspondingly greater supraliminal access to products or elements of subliminal mentation. . . .

The second is Automatism, ie the automatic and often rapid intrusion of significant, even complex, material into consciousness. The authors of this chapter, Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso, adduce examples of this as a more general phenomenon before dealing with inspiration specifically. An example of the kind of experience they deal with is the calculating prodigy who can almost instantly provide the correct answer to a complex calculation. They claim that there are something like 100 carefully recorded examples of this, of whom approximately a dozen are still living. In terms of inspiriation they write (page 441):

Inspiration is essentially the intrusion into supraliminal consciousness of some novel form of order that has gestated somewhere beyond its customary margins. The content of such inspirations can vary widely in character, scope, completeness, but psychologically the process is fundamentally the same throughout its range.

We have already looked on this blog at how dreams can contribute to creative problem solving, indicating clearly that subconscious processes are at work even in sleep. They also quote writers such as Housman (pages 444-45) who recounts how two stanzas of a four stanza poem came complete into his head during a walk on Hampstead Heath. The third came easily soon after but the last one took more than a year to write.

Thomas Wolfe (page 445) wrote three huge novels in four-and-a-half years, describing the process as ‘something that took hold of me and possessed me, and before I was done with it – that is before I finally emerged with the first completed part – it seemed that it had done for me.’ He said ‘I cannot really say the book was written.’

The example of Goethe is particularly telling (page 446):

[Poems] have suddenly come up on me, have insisted on being composed immediately, so that I have felt an instinctive and dreamy impulse to write them down on the spot. In such a somnambulist condition, it has often happened that I have had a sheet of paper lying before me all aslant and I have not discovered it till all has been written, or I have found no room to write any more. I have possessed many such sheets written diagonally.

As a result of all this evidence they conclude (page 447):

In sum, Myers seems to us certainly correct in pointing out connections of genius with trance and automatism.

The third and final characteristic is Incommensurability (page 451):

Myers introduces this theme in section 322: “And thus there may really be something at times incommensurable between the inspirations of genius and the results of conscious logical thought. . . . . “Something of strangeness” which is in “all excellent beauty,” maybe the expression of a real difference between subliminal and supraliminal modes of perception.

Non-linguistic processes are more in evidence (ibid.):

Subliminal mentation is less closely bound than supraliminal mentation to language, either ordinary spoken and written language or the specialised languages of science and mathematics; but it is not for that reason to be presumed inferior.

There are echoes here of the poet William Butler Yeats. The introduction to Albright’s edition of his poems puts it succinctly (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.

And Allbright expands on this in terms of Yeats’s writing (ibid):

As a poet, Yeats hoped to subvert a language created for the description of the everyday world, in order to embody visions of the extra-terrestrial.  The mirror of his art must not merely reflect, but kindle, start to burn with images hitherto unseen.

Kathleen Raine sees William Blake as a similar sort of visionary to whom Yeats looked up as a model. In Golgonooza\: City of Imagination she quotes him (page 6): ‘The Eternal Body of Man is the imagination, that is, God himself… It manifests itself in his Works of Art (In Eternity All is Vision)’ and goes onto say, ‘For Blake… the arts are the channels through which visions of these “eternal things displayed” are embodied and disseminated.’

Myers is more cautious about Blake (page 445):

Footnote: Myers, like Bran (1991), 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).

This characteristic caution is one of the reasons I find it easy to trust him when he presents me with challenging ideas. He will not have come to any of his conclusions lightly.

'The Pleasure Principle' by René Magritte

‘The Pleasure Principle’ by René Magritte

Transpersonal Roots of Genius

Myers extrapolates from this account of the elements of creative inspiration to define more closely the special characteristics of genius.

First of all genius has deeper access to the subliminal while accepting its basic continuity with ordinary consciousness: note that he mentions the dependency upon the symbolic for the transmission of what is found in the depths (page 482):

Myers believes that ordinary supraliminal perceptual and cognitive processes reveal only relatively superficial aspects of the far wider and deeper environment, mostly unknown, in which we are continuously immersed. The subliminal reaches further into this complex reality, however, and can report what it finds using its own characteristic modes of symbolic expression. Thus, genius, the distinctive characteristic of which is “the large infusion of the subliminal in its mental output,” provides means for discovery of this hidden environment.

Perhaps one of the most challenging of the characteristics he adduces lies in the reliance he claims all genius, even the scientific, has upon beauty for recognising the truth of this deeper reality when it finds it. In the last post I only quoted the following passage (page 486):

The sense of beauty… has increasingly been recognised as playing a vital role in creative activity in all fields from mathematics and science to the arts. Koestler (1964) in particular had urged this view upon the early cognitive psychologists, without much success, declaring for example that “beauty is a function of truth, truth a function beauty. They can be separated by analysis, but in the lived experience of the creative act – and of it re-creative echo in the beholder – they are as inseparable as thought is inseparable from emotion”. A. I. Miller (2001) documents in detail the role played by a sense of beauty in both Picasso and Einstein. Even Poincaré . . . invoked the notion of a subliminal aesthetic “sieve” that would only pass through to waking consciousness . . . “combinations of mental atoms” . . . whose elegance would make them of real mathematical interest.

A more moving example, though perhaps not a more convincing one for the sceptics, is in the account given of the mathematician, Ramanujan, whom they refer to as one key example amongst others of how deep intuition and aesthetic sense combined to reveal mathematical truths that took years of work by later mathematicians to completely validate (pages 488-89):

All the main ingredients of Myers’s conception of genius are conspicuously present in this case. First there is extraordinary memory. . . . Second and more important, his biography is replete with signs of automatism. . . . “it was the goddess Namagiri, he would tell his friends, to whom he owed his mathematical gifts. Namagiri would write the equations on his tongue. Namagiri would bestow mathematical insight in his dreams.” . . . Ramanujan’s theorems were “elegant, unexpected, and deep.” Mathematicians of great ability, including Hardy among many others, were “enraptured” by his work, specifically by “its richness, beauty, and mystery – the sheer mathematical loveliness.” He was not often wrong, and even when he was wrong (as in some early work on the distribution of prime numbers), the incorrect results still exuded this particular atmosphere of mathematical beauty. Yet as Hardy himself observed, “all his results, new or old, right or wrong, had been arrived at by a process of mingled argument, intuition, and induction, of which he was entirely unable to give any coherent account.”

Evolutionary Implications

I previously mentioned that this theory of genius has evolutionary implications. I used a whole post to explain the basic position. I illustrated the point with one possible mechanism for this, i.e. the power of imagination to tap into the transcendent subliminal dimensions and convey something of their reality to a reader or viewer of a painting.

There is one other aspect of the Myers model that also has evolutionary implications and has links to genius but goes beyond that. They quote Myers as stating (page 480):

Man is in course of evolution… [and] it may be in his power to hasten his own evolution in ways previously unknown.

They unpack what they feel are the ways he has in mind (ibid.):

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. In addition to “active imagination” and creative work themselves, one thinks naturally in terms of cultivating phenomena such as ordinary dreams, lucid dreaming, and hypnagogia, which most persons can probably do.

They also mention, amongst other things, deep hypnosis, automatic writing and trance mediumship. There is a sense also in which genius need not be confined to a certain relatively small number of human capacities (page  481):

Myers suggests [that] “genius maybe recognised in every region of human thought and emotion. In each direction a man’s everyday self maybe more are less permeable to subliminal impulses.”

My understanding of this is that, in Myers’s view, there is a reservoir of higher consciousness to which genius has greater access than the rest of us at present. It is obvious that a higher consciousness by definition will, if we can access it, lift our level in its turn. We will have shifted up a notch on the evolutionary ladder.

At present, we can all use the works of a genius, whether spiritual, literary, musical or artistic, to enhance our understanding of reality. We can, in addition, also learn to develop our own particular ‘genius,’ whatever that may be, which will also serve the same purpose. And to the extent to which more and more of us do the same and share our enhanced understandings in ever more effective forms of communication, humanity as whole will also advance.

A crucial caveat

Myers, the authors feel, is careful to distinguish what he is claiming from anything like divine intervention (page 491):

. . . mysticism does not imply supernatural intervention. It is true that in pointing out the psychological connections with mysticism Myers hews close to the classical origins of the terms genius and creation, with their well-known supernatural connotations. But the essence of what he is doing is to respect the impressive phenomenology of genius – reflected in the concept of “inspiration” as being literally “breathed into” by the Muses, a god or daemon, or what ever – while reinterpreting it in entirely naturalistic, functional terms.

Given that what Myers is describing is so far beyond what current naturalism entertains as possible, many may feel this to be too bold a claim on the part of the authors of Irreducible Mind. Personally, I don’t. I think that with genius, as with near-death experiences and other mystical states, something real is happening that needs an explanation beyond the purely physical, beyond brain activity alone.

I was also relieved to discover the possible reason for why one of the few forms of modern art I find enjoyable holds such an attraction for me (page 450):

[S]urrealism… challenged fundamental premises about art and creativity, shifting the focus from conscious to unconscious processes, introducing the role of chance in the creative process, and treating that process as not merely aesthetic but political, social, and metaphysical. Although it is widely supposed that Surrealism was inspired wholly by Freud, that is certainly not correct: its chief theoretician, André Breton, published in 1933 an article specifically acknowledging its indebtedness to ‘the Gothic psychiatry of FWH Myers.” Myers’s work on automatism in fact provided the key psychological mechanism that Surrealism would attempt to exploit in novel ways: “Surrealism has above all worked to bring inspiration back into favour, and we have for that purpose promoted the use of automatic forms of expression.” The goal of Surrealism is essentially to unify the personality, which means for Breton what Myers meant by genius, the successful coordination and interpenetration of dream and waking life.

‘Good for them,’ I say.

'The Ready-Made Bouquet' by René Magritte

‘The Ready-Made Bouquet’ by René Magritte

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