Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)


Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events in London and Manchester and of this week’s sequence on Hillman’s book, that dealt in some detail with Hitler, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The posts, of which this is the last, have appeared on the consecutive days.

The first post looked at the implications of two books – Altruism and Black Earth – which led me to reflect on the possibility that we might not be immune to a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the previous post we had reached the point of arguing that it is essential, if our society is to lift its collective consciousness to a more compassionate level, that we focus more intently upon the education of our children.

There are two key areas that determine the direction of a child’s development: parenting and schooling.


Let’s take parenting first, and why it matters.

One main point is, and probably always should have been, fairly obvious, though now we have empirical evidence to back it up. When Jeremy Rifkin in his excellent book – The Empathic Civilisation – looks at where we are at present with the challenges we face, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.

There are also less obvious forces at work as well. Ricard explores the exact relationship as currently understood between evolution and altruism. He looks carefully at the evidence and quotes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s conclusion from her research that (page 173):

. . . . ‘novel rearing conditions along the line of early hominids meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressure that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.’

In other words, the fact that newborns interact quickly with a large number of people may have contributed considerably to raising the degree of cooperation and empathy among humans.

Hrdy’s final point of view is very clear (page 174):

. . . without the help of “alloparents,” there would never have been a human species.

We are now breaking that pattern (ibid.):

The notion of “family” as limited to a couple and their children developed only in the 20th century in Europe, and as late as the 1950s in the United States. Before that, most families included members of three generations, comprising aunts, cousins, et cetera.

This carries a significant risk (pages 175-76):

. . . . given empathy and the faculties of understanding others developed thanks to particular ways of taking care of children, and if an increasing proportion of humans no longer benefited from these conditions, compassion and the search for emotional connections would disappear. [Hrdy] questions whether such people “will be human in ways that we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”


Is there any sign that our educational systems, not just in the West but also in countries such as China, are working hard enough to counteract a trend towards narcissistic materialism and competitiveness? There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of American education John Fitzgerald Medina writes in his hard-hitting Faith, Physics & Psychology (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

Though Jeremy Rifkin sees it more positively and refers to the existence in schools of programmes designed to develop empathy, he is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

[An example of what Rifkin refers to elsewhere in his book when describing programmes for cultivating empathy is in this clip.]  

An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians.

An article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

chinese teachers

Chinese Teachers in UK (for source of image see link)

A recent series on BBC television showed clearly how China is walking along the same potentially destructive path. Four teachers came to the UK to prove how the Chinese system is far more effective than ours in boosting academic performance. They emphasised, in their comments on their approach, how China stresses preparing their students to succeed in what they see as an extremely and inevitably competitive world. Their blackboard-based monologues, pumping out facts with no opportunity to experience their living meaning, was reminiscent of the Gradgrind approach to education Charles Dickens satirised in Hard Times:

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘My father as calls me Sissy. sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. . . . . .

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Unfortunately the Chinese teachers’ approach was shown to produce better grades than the UK system. My worry is that it probably does not produce better human beings, even while conceding that our own system leaves a lot to be desired still in that respect.

In addition to the need to build back into the curriculum elements of creativity, morality, and spirituality, there is an additional vital element we must not forget. A service component, something at the core of the Bahá’í approach, is almost certainly crucial to any educational system, not just one for remedial purposes. Compassion has to be linked to action to be fully internalised.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. For example, the research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems. He was reacting to the fact that an expensive implementation of the programme involving nearly 600 students across several sites failed to produce any of the expected benefits (page 131):

What happened? It turns out that each site was given a fair amount of latitude in how they implemented the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme], and none of the sites adopted the entire curriculum. In particular, most of the site managers decided to focus on the mentoring aspects of the program and non-fully implemented the community service component – the very component that we know, from the Teen Outreach and Reach for Health programs, has beneficial effects! Sadly, more than $15 million was spent on a five-year intervention in which a key ingredient (community service) was eliminated. . . .

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

For a sense of the what the Bahá’í Approach involves this video is a good introduction. It shows how the Bahá’í emphasis upon engaging young people in the process of child education and community building works in practice.

(Published on 2 May 2013: You can download this film from the Official website: http://www.bahai.org/frontiers/)

It seems to me imperative that everyone, no matter what their circumstances might be, needs at the very least to find whatever ways they can to raise consciousness among their family, friends and contacts, so that more and more people internalise a vision of humanity as one family and understand better how to nurture and sustain people, fellow creatures and the planet. If that can also involve directly relevant action so much the better.

My personal plan

For the foreseeable future I plan to explore, as often as I am able, this whole issue of altruism. In particular I want to understand more fully what factors enable us to widen the compass of our compassion and what factors narrow it.

I am already fairly clear that this will take me back over some familiar territory, though perhaps seeing it through a slightly different lens, but it will also require me to look carefully at some areas I have not explored in detail. Historical texts, for example, have not been my favourite grazing ground in the past – something about the way they marshal information switches me off. However, Snyder’s book has persuaded me I ought to give them another chance as I came to realise, from reading Black Earth, how little I really understood about many of the background factors that shaped the Holocaust. Maybe I also need to revisit some philosophical work that I have previously avoided as too challenging in its approach.

Some bolder experiments in terms of my personal experience might not come amiss either. I doubt that I can fully understand the challenges of this area without stepping into the fire.

What I have realised about this topic is that I can investigate it almost anywhere at any time, no matter what I am doing – perhaps even when I am chilling out in front of some anodyne murder mystery on the television.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tomorrow I begin posting a short sequence on the idea of a ‘calling,’ by which is meant the powerful urge to fulfil a purpose which gives life meaning as the same time time as it dominates it entirely.  Republishing this post seemed a good preparation.

In the light of my ruminations on van Gogh after my trip to Amsterdam and the recent revelations about the rediscovered gun and his ear, the recent Guardian longer article by  came as a brilliant pulling of threads together into a coherent and compelling pattern. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

When Vincent van Gogh got out of hospital in January 1889, with a white bandage covering the place where his left ear had been, he immediately went back to work in his house next to a cafe in the southern French town of Arles. A still life he painted that month looks like a determined attempt to hold on to the things of this world, to quell his inner turbulence by concentrating on the solid facts of his life. Around a sturdy wooden table he has laid out a symbolic array of the simple pillars of his existence. Four onions. A medical self-help book. A candle. The pipe and tobacco he found steadying. A letter from his brother Theo. A teapot. And one more thing: a large, emptied bottle of absinthe.

Has he drunk the absinthe since leaving hospital? Does its emptiness represent a promise to swear off the stuff from now on?

The first thing to be said about this painting is that it is revolutionary. It is a new kind of art. The very idea that a collection of objects, painted with fiery brushstrokes in heightened luminous colours, with ridges of thick impasto in some places and bare canvas in others, can reveal the state of someone’s soul was utterly new. Van Gogh was its originator. In the months after this mostly self-taught Dutch artist in his mid 30s arrived in Arles in February 1888 he invented a new kind of art that would come to be called expressionism.

In the process he drove himself mad.

That probably sounds like a dangerously Romantic way of putting it to curators of On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This sensational show – how strange to see the rusty gun, found in a field at Auvers-sur-Oise, that the museum is “80% sure” Van Gogh shot himself with, in 1890, at the age of just 37 – is full of fascinating documents that tell a sad story of a man struggling with his declining mental health until finally, in despair of ever getting well or living independently, he chose suicide. It presents a lucid narrative of the final phase of Van Gogh’s life. Yet it is ultimately a pedantic and misleading exhibition whose pursuit of clinical accuracy misses the mystery of Van Gogh’s life and art.

The straw man the curators want to tear down is the myth that Van Gogh’s genius lay in his “madness”, that he painted in the fever of hallucinations and took inspiration from illness.

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Emily, Anne and Charlotte in To Walk Invisible. Ann is seated in the middle. Photograph: BBC/Michael Prince

I am slowly picking myself up after a busy festive season. At the end of it I found myself wondering what themes were calling me, as I’d rather dropped the ball over the last few weeks. 

I find I am being drawn to the Brontës by a number of hints including Sally Wainwright’s recent excellent documentary drama, To Walk Invisible (it’s available for another 19 days), and this excellent Guardian article of last Friday  by Samantha Ellis, which redresses the balance in terms of Anne.

The Brontës’s combination of trauma and creativity suggests that trauma can elevate a person to a higher level of understanding which is a form of transcendence, even in the absence of transliminality, unlike my rather glib conclusion in an earlier post’s diagram. 

So, I’ve added another substantial clutch of books to my list. Heaven knows when I will be able to read them all, let alone pull what I have learned into a coherent perspective. I guess I’ll not be keeping up my previous pace of posts for a few days or even weeks yet. I hope your patience with me will prove worth it in the end. 

Anyhow, here is a short extract from the Ellis post – how intriguing to have as a surname Emily’s pseudonym! Click the link for the full post.

Seen as less passionate than Emily, less accomplished than Charlotte, Anne is often overlooked. But her governess Agnes Grey is a clear model for Jane Eyre.

Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?

Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material, that she was telling a story no one else was telling. As she laboured away in her neat, elegant handwriting, Anne must have felt that she was writing a novel that would go off like a bomb.

Agnes Grey sticks close to the facts of Anne’s life. The eponymous heroine is a clergyman’s daughter, just as Anne’s father, Patrick Brontë, was the perpetual curate of Haworth in Yorkshire. Anne doesn’t specify where Agnes grows up, but she does say she was “born and nurtured among … rugged hills”, so when I read the novel, I imagine the Yorkshire moors. Both Anne and Agnes were originally one of six children. Anne lost her two eldest sisters when she was five. Agnes has lost even more siblings; she and her older sister Mary are the only two who have “survived the perils of infancy”. Both Agnes and Anne are the youngest. When Agnes says she is frustrated because she is “always regarded as the child, and the pet of the family”, considered “too helpless and dependent – too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life”, it feels like Anne talking. She always chafed at being patronised.

. . . . Agnes turns to one of the only other jobs open to middle-class women: she decides to become a governess. . . .  instead of an adventure, Agnes gets a crash course in how cruel the world can be, and how it got that way.

One of Agnes’s pupils, Tom Bloomfield, enjoys torturing birds. One day his vile uncle, who encourages Tom’s cruelty, gives him a nest of baby birds. When Agnes sees him “laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight” and he won’t be reasoned with, something rises within her. She grabs a large flat stone and crushes the birds flat.

This brutal mercy killing is almost too violent to read. Agnes Grey’s first critics thought it went too far, but Anne insisted that “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant overcolouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration”.

 A new Vintage Classics edition of Agnes Grey is published on 12 January. Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis is published by Chatto & Windus on the same date.

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Given that there is clear evidence that a head injury or smoking skunk can damage the brain’s ability to filter out unwanted information, it is relatively easy to demonstrate that, at least on some occasions this decrement can contribute to the experience of psychosis.

For example, Shields claims (Psychosis as Coping), on the basis of evidence he adduces, that one difference commonly observed in psychotic individuals is a functional reduction in activity in the lateral pre-frontal cortex. As he puts it ‘impairing the lPFC entails a diminished ability to avoid dealing with unwanted thoughts and memories.’

That is not the same, of course, as demonstrating that it is causative. What I was hoping to find at some point are studies that demonstrate whether or not psychosis occurs in the absence of comparable damage to the brain’s ability to filter, and whether or not such damage is a significant contributor if present. I am frustrated at present by my inability to gain access to the necessary material.

It took five weeks before I received my copy of Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – Mindfulness in Behavioral Health edited by Alexander Moreira-Almeida and Franklin Santana Santos. It is mostly somewhat disappointing in terms of this issue. I’ve shared a couple of faintly useful ideas from it so far (see previous post for examples). However, there is an extremely useful section of a chapter by Mario Beauregard which I’ll be quoting from in the next post, as well as additional insights from Peter Fenwick and Penny Sartori.

Primary sources are almost impossible to access as I no longer subscribe to academic sources. I hope to resolve this problem as soon as I have time. In the meantime and in full awareness that compelling evidence may be lacking, what have I got to go on?

The main sources of information are Psychosis and Spirituality and Irreducible Mind, the latter not focusing on psychosis specifically.

psychosis-spiritualityPsychosis and Spirituality continued

In the first source Isabel Clarke (Chapters 9 and 20) and Gordon Claridge (Chapter 7) are the clearest proponents of the psychosis/transliminality link.

She sees three aspects to transliminality (page 103) ‘which embraces both the spiritual and psychotic’ and ‘extends to the interpersonal, so that group phenomena, and the collective unconscious are included. All live beyond the limen, the threshold or boundary of the individual self.’

Our ordinary method of construing reality, which she refers to as ‘the construct system’ is transcended (pages 105-06) so ‘[i]t means moving into the unknown. Challengingly, according to this model, as my understanding of the self is essentially a construction, I lose touch with this when I pass beyond the horizon, along with other constructs, and thereby lose the means of making predictions.’

She quotes Hemsley as noting that psychotic experience can be explained by: ‘the failure to relate current sensory input to stored regularities’ and adds ‘The neurophysiological substrate of high schizotypy, implying easier accessibility of the transliminal, is described in the schizotypy literature thus: “The positive schizotypal nervous system has been described as an ‘open nervous system […] where excitatory mechanisms are high and inhibitory processes low” (McCreery and Claridge, 1996).’

She unpacks further the implications for the self (page 110):

I have already mentioned that the construct of self is among the concepts to be lost in the transition, which can lead to an exhilarating feeling of unity and interconnectedness, as well as the bewilderment of loss of self. . . . . I would argue that the characteristic themes of psychotic material, whether in the form of voices or delusions, concern issues of self worth, acceptability, sexuality and personal significance, which are all relevant to understanding the self.

It is obvious how the themes she highlights here relate to the impact of trauma, especially in the form of sexual abuse.

In her later chapter she explores other aspects of this dynamic, which can be both positive and negative (page 249):

[A] reconceptualisation [of psychosis] recognises opening to the transliminal as a part of the journey of life which can be problematic but has great potential. Such openings can compromise normal functioning; they can bring the individual face-to-face with unresolved issues and be acutely frightening and distressing; however, they can also present the opportunity to break out of a mould that had become constricting and embrace a fuller way of being, through opening the self to the whole.

This, she feels, would be an important counterbalance to our society’s left-brain overemphasis, to use McGilchrist’s language here. She writes (page 251):

I am suggesting that we need that connectedness with the whole, but not to expect to grasp it with our intellect and ability to manipulate the environment, as it is literally beyond this grasp. This un-graspability has led to its marginalisation in a technical era. Perhaps we need that connectedness that takes us beyond the individual, towards other humans, other species, and yet wider, within the whole. We need the mystery, the unknowable, to feel at home in the world, with our fellow human and non-human creatures, and with our natural environment; to connect with whatever source of sacredness envelops all of this. . . . . Perhaps our subjective sense of separateness is more illusory than we would like to think.

While I resonate emotionally to this rhetoric, it is evidence I’m looking for here, and I am finding none.

Before we move on to Chadwick’s perspective it is worth quoting Natalie Tobert (page 46) She quotes the psychiatrist Barett as suggesting that ‘patients with schizophrenia are in a state of ‘suspended liminality.” Barett suggests that psychiatric institutions may ‘freeze liminality into a permanent state.’ This maps onto my discussion in an earlier sequence of how important it is to have an accepting environment if a positive journey towards integration and healing is to be facilitated.

Chadwick shares Clarke’s sense of there being a mixture of positive and negative (page 67):

This openness to without and within can have advantages for inside, sensitivity and creativity and also for access to spiritual experiences but on an everyday level such ‘skinlessness’ undoubtedly is a burden – and a fear-inducing burden at that.

We have already seen in an earlier post that he believes, as Thalbourne does, that the subliminal content that crosses through to consciousness is both spiritual and personal in nature (page 82). The presence of spiritual content is not inevitable though:

. . . . . . . other questions lurk here. Not all, perhaps relatively few, people who suffer clinical psychosis also report experiences of a positive, spiritual kind.

I sense that here we again are meeting two sources of experience, thankfully not conflated: the ‘without,’ by which I presume he means the extrasensory transcendent dimension, and the ‘within,’ our brain generated subliminal signals. He seems to relate creativity to inner stimuli.

He feels that the quality of early experience might be a factor here (page 84):

Where nourishing as opposed to abusive early experience obtained, the same biological susceptibility to transliminality, the break with ordinary reality could be much less threatening, even psychologically rewarding.

What I am uneasy about here is the use of transliminality to refer to both inner and outer sources of experience. I am going to stick to my guns here and state that filtering operates within the brain and a spectrum/bandwidth model applies to whatever comes from outside the brain.

The closest I have been able to get to the original work by Thalbourne and Delin on this issue is the reference they themselves make in 1999 to their 1994 paper (Transliminality: its Relation to Dream Life, Religiosity and Mystical Experience in The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion 9:1). They write (page 45):

. . . evidence was presented that there exists a common thread underlying creative personality, mystical experience, psychopathology (both schizotypal and manic-depressive), and belief in the paranormal. This common factor was named transliminality and was tentatively defined as ‘a largely involuntary susceptibility to, and awareness of, large volumes of inwardly generated psychological phenomena of an ideational and affective kind’ (page 25).

I’m sorry this is a bit of a hall of mirrors – a reference within a reference – but it’s the best I can do right now. It is extremely useful though in confirming that they are speaking exclusively of ‘inwardly generated’ material, suggesting that for them this would be a filtering not a spectrum/bandwidth issue. For me, it still begs the question then of what exactly is the status of mystical experience. If it is inwardly generated, is it therefore imaginary rather than objectively valid and externally existent?

Their later comments in this paper suggest that they are very much inclined to believe there is no external reality, even though their conclusions are none the less intriguing and make no distinction, except for intensity, between religious and psychotic upsurges from the subliminal[1] (pages 58-59):

. . . atheists are lowest in degree of transliminality, followed by agnostics. Christian theists have a level that is close to that for the sample as a whole, but non-Christian theists has the highest levels of transliminality of all. We suggest that belief in God may derive partly from external sources [i.e. socio-cultural] and partly from within the person. Atheists and agnostics tend to reject external authority and find little evidence within themselves to persuade them of the existence of a deity. Christian theists appear not to have much inner experience suggestive of a God but may rely more on tradition and authority. Non-Christian theists, however, may be basing their belief predominantly on inner experience, their high degree of transliminality providing them with the food for their conclusion that a deity exists.

. . . . Clearly, the outpourings produced by high transliminality are often enough taken to be not almost but actually miraculous, or to derive from the Godhead itself. Perhaps in some cases they do!

Returning to Chadwick, even with negative early experiences he does not rule out the possibility of input leaking from the transpersonal (page 87):

If we were to try to confront how the same formulation might also account for spiritual or mystical experience, then we might logically be forced to consider that the psychotic person’s skinlessess (or transliminality) could even extend to what in conventional terms would be called the supernatural.

This is where I need to find a reason why what has created a greater leakage across the filtering processes of the brain would also cause a retuning to a wider bandwidth, giving access to externally valid transpersonal experiences. It seems improbable that damage enhances receptivity in this way, although, if the brain tends to block rather than permit information flow, maybe a damaged brain will paradoxically become a better transceiver. If we are simply talking about the process by which the brain’s own subliminal contents are filtered, there is of course, no such problem for a materialist: it’s all imagination anyway and if you damage the filter you’ll obviously get more stuff coming through. I don’t think the writers of this book though would be happy with that position: they mean something more than imagination when they use the word spiritual.

Returning to Chadwick’s point once more, it could of course in that context be dark rather than uplifting material that leaks in through the cracks.

A problem for me at present is that none of this is backed up by clear and compelling proof that what they are defining as spiritual is true and transcendent. At best, it is mostly hypothetical, ambiguous, anecdotal or, frankly, even metaphorical.

Even so, Chadwick’s own personal experience warrants inclusion here. I personally am convinced of its authenticity, but am aware that a sceptic would find reasons to dismiss it as at best anecdotal.

This is a slightly abbreviated account of his experiences with sounds that could be heard accompanying his thoughts (page 71):

There was only one brief crisis in my recovery period that is worthy of note, particularly in the context of this volume. It is important for the reader to realise that the rappings I referred to that began in Charing Cross were actually audible to other people. They were not hallucinations. I have them at times to this day and even our cats can hear them and orient their heads quickly to the source. They particularly come from a wood and metal.

In September 1981, two years after the [psychotic] episode, I was living in a basement flat in Perham Road… with my future wife Jill… The rapping began again over a period of a couple of weeks…. Jill could hear them and would flee the kitchen when they built up. They were now frequently tapping ‘Yes’ to the thought that I should rush out and throw myself under a lorry.

At times like this, one sees and fully realises how useless the attitude of sceptics in the field of the paranormal can be. In that situation, a sceptic would not have had the faintest idea what to do. It seemed to me that as the rappings began to really gallop, science and psychology were of no use to me now. I asked Jill if you could find my Bible and when she brought it to me I sat at the kitchen table… and began to read. It seemed to me that I really needed to call upon a Higher Power to defeat what was definitely looking like a manifestation of The Demonic. . . . . .

As I started to read the New Testament the timing of the rappings started, very slightly at first, to go awry… By the second page, their timing was definitely ‘off,’ by the third they were ‘missing thoughts’ and not tapping at all to some things that crossed my mind. By the fourth and fifth pages, their timing was totally haywire, it was like the sound of machine that was completely malfunctioning… Then very suddenly they stopped completely. The kitchen was quiet.

My sense is that much more systematic research needs to be done in this area. There is little institutional support for this even yet, I suspect. This may suggest that not only are spiritual experiences in the context of psychosis likely to be discounted, but also they will be rare in a culture that devalues any such experiences in general. The priority of the brain as a product of evolution is physical survival, as many writers point out. Spiritual dimensions are tuned out as irrelevant. Opening up such channels against the grain of a culture such as ours is almost impossible for most people.


Given that this is the level we seem to be working at, what hypothesis seems best?

At the end of my sequence on Shelley I made reference to three possible routes that the transcendent might take into consciousness:

  1. a seed in the soil of an artist’s subconscious (subliminal in the diagram),
  2. a reflection in the mirror of his consciousness (when reflection has separated it from the clutter of its contents), or
  3. a light from the lamp of his mind (assuming we accept that mind is independent of the brain, which is simply a transceiver that can pick up even the subtlest waves if it is tuned correctly, which it usually isn’t).

Even though the focus there was on creativity, this can be blended up to a point with the problem raised in my earlier diagram as my notes in brackets indicate.

It is time now to revisit Irreducible Mind in the next post.


[1] They feel that the frequency of religious content in psychosis is to do with the prevalence of religious ideas in American society.

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Validating [psychotic] experience and linking it with that of the mystic wherever relevant was an obvious first step. This was coupled with a realistic appraisal of the problems of trying to conduct life from the transliminal (which I often compare with trying to drive a car from the back seat, without proper access to the controls) and encouragement to join the ordinary world along with strategies for managing this.

(From Psychosis and Spirituality edited by Isabel Clarke – page 196)


As I said at the beginning of the last sequence of posts, I am aware that the full focus of my current enquiries spreads across this whole diagram. However, I needed to start somewhere manageable and progress from there, or else my next blog post will have to wait several years until I have had time to explore the whole diagram.

It should be surprise to regular readers of this blog that I decided to start with the left side. I’m not sure what the brain laterality implications of that are exactly, but I’m very clear that I’m trying to play to my strengths here. The most enriching part of my career was spent working with the experiencers of psychosis. That’s the work I loved most and where I learned most.

Even so this is not going to be plain sailing and this voyage is probably not for the faint-hearted blogger.

As I have hopefully shown in the first sequence of posts, it’s now easy to demonstrate that trauma plays some kind of causative role in psychosis, as well as in other distressing problems.

What I hope to illustrate is how transliminality, a permeable threshold of consciousness, or something like it, appears to correlate with some experiences of psychosis. My first problem there will be trying to clarify exactly what transliminality is.

After that, what may not be so easily supported by evidence is the idea that transliminality is also playing a causative role. It may simply be another consequence of trauma: in fact, there is some evidence to that effect. To close in on resolving this I will need to search for evidence that transliminality, at least with some people, is present prior to both trauma and psychotic experiences: I am still in the process of trying to pull that evidence together, but it is not proving easy. What I will be giving here is more of a progress report rather than a final position on the matter.

What is Transliminality?

I think we have to start by attempting to define what transliminality might be. Gordon Claridge in Psychosis and Spirituality pins his colours to Thalbourne’s mast (page 82):

As defined by Thalbourne, transliminality refers to a individual differences in the extent to which ideas, affects and other mental contents cross the threshold between subliminal and supraliminal: in some people, he argues, the barrier is simply more permeable. . . . . Quoting a range of psychometric, clinical and experimental evidence, he argues that a high degree of transliminality is associated with strong belief in and reporting of paranormal phenomena; enhanced creativity; a greater tendency to indulge in magical thinking; more frequent mystical experiences: and a susceptibility to psychotic and psychotic-like symptoms.

This though, I think, jumps too far ahead for present purposes.

For a start, it is necessary to flag up one fundamental complication that I will be seeking to address, though I may be unable to come to any definitive conclusion empirically on the basis of the evidence that is available to me at present.

I am sensing that two distinct possibilities are being conflated, perhaps through my distorting one of the sources I’m consulting (Psychosis and Spirituality), or perhaps because the overall picture conveyed by the text is confused on this point. I believe that there are two quite distinct processes which have been subsumed into the supposedly single concept of transliminality.

I’ll try and unpack my point as simply and clearly as I can.

One possibility is that of a filter within the brain to prevent consciousness being overwhelmed with brain data it does not need. This data is what I suspect Claridge means by ‘affects, ideas and other mental contents,’ but the inclusion of mystical experiences seems anomalous for reasons I will explore later.

The basic brain filter function has taken its present shape via evolutionary processes. As we will see this filtering process has both costs and benefits.

The other possibility is a spectrum issue. Just as our senses cannot detect sensory stimuli except within a relatively narrow range, so our brains within our Western culture mostly fail on a whole to detect any signals outside this physical spectrum.

I am hoping to determine, from the evidence I am able to look at, whether psychosis is the result for the most part of leakage in the filter system. This would not mean that psychotic experiences should be dismissed as garbage: they are the meaningful responses to trauma and life experience and, if addressed respectfully and attentively, can catalyse a healing process as well as build a ladder to higher levels of emotional and cognitive understanding.

There may also be extended spectrum effects in operation: the factors that have altered the brain’s filtering mechanisms may also have enhanced its receptive capacities in other respects sometimes. That’s not as simple as it sounds as we will see.

Creativity would usually, I suspect, come from either increased filter permeability or extended spectrum perception. Psi and other mystical states would seem to me to be dependent only on the latter, though I’m not sure that this is the position Thalbourne would espouse — again something for later exploration.


The simplest way I could express this in a diagram is the one above.

I know it begs a lot of questions at this point but basically it is showing consciousness as a narrow-angled access to only a small proportion of all that might possibly be known. I have broken with tradition in placing the segment symbolising what we can access, not at the centre, but at the side. This is both to emphasise my ignorance of how this spectrum works and to suggest that our consciousness is not necessarily focused on what is central and most important.

The darkness surrounding it assumes our finite minds could never grasp all that there is: assume the black is infinite. We can at times access aspects of our usually unconscious inner experiences. The diagram assumes, perhaps incorrectly, that external realities beyond the reach of our ordinary senses can sometimes leak into the internal subliminal where they can infrequently be accessed, though perhaps not in an accurate or easily intelligible form.

It also assumes that the only way access to aspects of the initially extrasensory can routinely occur is when our receptivity increases: I am not positing some kind of filter mechanism in this part of the process.

At present this is largely a speculation to be tested, but it will help you follow the trend of my examination of the evidence if you bear it in mind.

Where possible and appropriate, instead of, in my commentary on quotations, using the term transliminality all the time, I will see if making the tentative distinction between filter and spectrum language helps make things clearer, as well as drawing a distinction between extrasensory and subliminal.

Irreducible MindThis is where I found Myers’s language confusing in my first encounter with him in the book, Irreducible Mind. Subliminal for him was a catchall term for anything of which we are not conscious. None the less he also used the spectrum model, and I did not pick up, from the Kellys’ transmission of his ideas, whether he distinguished between outside elements that were beyond the reach of our radar and internal elements that were below the threshold of consciousness.

I think this distinction needs to be made and will be revisiting Irreducible Mind in case I have missed something there. What I suspect I will not be able to avoid considering at some point is the whole vexed question of the mind-brain relationship. This may or may not make it easier to resolve the possible tension between filter and spectrum theories.

For now though, I am just going to start in the next post from the brain basics and work my way up from there.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van GoghIn the light of my ruminations on van Gogh after my trip to Amsterdam and the recent revelations about the rediscovered gun and his ear (only 24 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), the recent Guardian longer article by  came as a brilliant pulling of threads together into a coherent and compelling pattern. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

When Vincent van Gogh got out of hospital in January 1889, with a white bandage covering the place where his left ear had been, he immediately went back to work in his house next to a cafe in the southern French town of Arles. A still life he painted that month looks like a determined attempt to hold on to the things of this world, to quell his inner turbulence by concentrating on the solid facts of his life. Around a sturdy wooden table he has laid out a symbolic array of the simple pillars of his existence. Four onions. A medical self-help book. A candle. The pipe and tobacco he found steadying. A letter from his brother Theo. A teapot. And one more thing: a large, emptied bottle of absinthe.

Has he drunk the absinthe since leaving hospital? Does its emptiness represent a promise to swear off the stuff from now on?

The first thing to be said about this painting is that it is revolutionary. It is a new kind of art. The very idea that a collection of objects, painted with fiery brushstrokes in heightened luminous colours, with ridges of thick impasto in some places and bare canvas in others, can reveal the state of someone’s soul was utterly new. Van Gogh was its originator. In the months after this mostly self-taught Dutch artist in his mid 30s arrived in Arles in February 1888 he invented a new kind of art that would come to be called expressionism.

In the process he drove himself mad.

That probably sounds like a dangerously Romantic way of putting it to curators of On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This sensational show – how strange to see the rusty gun, found in a field at Auvers-sur-Oise, that the museum is “80% sure” Van Gogh shot himself with, in 1890, at the age of just 37 – is full of fascinating documents that tell a sad story of a man struggling with his declining mental health until finally, in despair of ever getting well or living independently, he chose suicide. It presents a lucid narrative of the final phase of Van Gogh’s life. Yet it is ultimately a pedantic and misleading exhibition whose pursuit of clinical accuracy misses the mystery of Van Gogh’s life and art.

The straw man the curators want to tear down is the myth that Van Gogh’s genius lay in his “madness”, that he painted in the fever of hallucinations and took inspiration from illness.

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