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Posts Tagged ‘Frankenstein’

De toda la memoria, solo vale
el don preclaro de evocar los sueños.

(For this alone is memory to be prized,
this signal gift of calling back old dreams.

(From Antonio Machado Selected Poems trans. By Alan Trueblood: pages 98-99)

What next?

In the last post we had reached a point in the process where the basic but all-important spade work had been done. We have the raw material. Now we must find a way of decoding the imagery to decipher what the dream might mean.

In the previous post we were looking at how we might consult with our dreams in order to discover different and more helpful ways of approaching our challenges in life, other than the two described by Daniel Kahneman as System 1 and System 2. We got part way through a description of a process, mostly derived from the work of Ann Faraday in her book The Dream Game, by which we could learn how to do this. The idea is that this represents a genuine third way of seeing, even a third kind of self through which to see. It is not the only such way but it is the focus here.

So we’re picking up the threads from where we left off – how do we decode the symbols in the dreams we have recorded.

Stage 2 – Decoding the Dream

  1. Defining the Dream Elements

This is a crucial part of the process and so easy to get wrong. It is vitally important to be completely objective in listing the elements. I had to be careful not to dismiss any that I felt were not promising or not sufficiently drenched in deep significance. Also elements, as I discovered, are not just objects and people. They are everything in the dream including actions, feelings, fragments of conversation: even my own thoughts as a dreamer need to be included.

  1. Decoding Dream Elements

There was an over-riding consideration I rapidly realised applied to all aspects of dreamwork. The most fruitful assumption to make, once I decided a dream was worth working on, was that all the dream elements were aspects of my mind at some level, even though I was neither familiar, nor likely to be comfortable with them.

There were two stages now to decoding the elements. If I had decided to work a dream then, even if some elements related to past or future events, this was unlikely to be all they meant, so I would have to work with them as seriously as any other element.

  1. Free Association

Carl Gustav Jung. For source of image see link.

Anyone who is as averse to key aspects of the Freudian model of psychoanalysis as I am, don’t worry. I used to use the Jungian method of association.

With the Freudian method, as I understood it, you were meant to start with the stimulus word and associate from it in a chain. ‘Radio,’ ‘waves,’ ‘ocean,’ ‘the Gulf Stream,’ ‘the Gulf War,’ ‘Syria,’ going back to the beginning again until all associations were exhausted. You can see the problem. I usually became exhausted well before the associations were. Whenever I tried it the chain never seemed to stop until each word had at least half a page of wide ranging associations from which I could not derive any coherent meaning at all.

Jung’s method was far more congenial. You provide an association then come back to the root word for the next. ‘Radio-waves,’ ‘radio-third programme,’ ‘radio-therapy,’ ‘radio-London,’ and so on. The process generally never created more than a paragraph of associations, and there was usually some kind of coherence to the way they grouped.

There is, of course, no need to be rigid about this. There have been times when allowing a string of connected ideas to flow from the one word has proved most fruitful. It’s just that I found the chain of associations method more confusing than helpful most of the time.

Sometimes, I did not need to go beyond this stage. The meaning of the dream became sufficiently clear for me to use what I had learned and move on, especially when you have freed your mind from the Freudian shackle of assuming all dreams are wish fulfillment of some kind.

An Interrogation Room

The most dramatic example of how an association can free the conscious mind from the prison of its self-deception, came from a patient I worked with who had been diagnosed as having an ‘endogenous’ depression, i.e. one that was not explicable in terms of her life situation. She was an articulate lady who gave clear descriptions of her history, which included a basically contented childhood, and of her current feelings, which were often suicidal, though she did not understand why. One day, she spoke of a recurrent dream she had. With variations, it was of being in a room with Hitler’s SS. They wanted information from her and were preparing to torture her.  Before the torture could begin she invariably woke in terror. Following the model I used for my own dreams I asked her to give me a full description of every aspect of her situation in the dream. She described not only the people, but also the size and shape of the room and the kind of furniture that was in it.

Naturally, we focused at first on the people, but, apart from the obvious link of her having been brought up in the aftermath of World War Two, there were no links with the SS officers who were threatening her. The room did not trigger any useful insights either. We were beginning to wonder whether this was simply a childhood nightmare of the war come back to haunt her, when I asked about her associations to the furniture. We were both instantly shocked by her first answer. It was exactly the same as the furniture in the kitchen of the house in which she had grown up.

It would not be right for me to go into any detail about where this led. I imagine everyone can see that the picture she had persuaded herself was real, of a contented childhood, was very wide of the mark. That she had no vivid memory of any one traumatic incident was because there were none to remember: her whole childhood, as we then gradually came to understand it, had been a subtle form of emotional starvation and neglect successfully disguised for her at least as normal parenting.

I was utterly persuaded then, if not before, of the heart’s power to use dreams to make us wiser when we are safe and ready, and of the truth of this not, just for me, but for everyone.

In terms of my own dreamwork, if I’d missed an important issue, either by using associations to decode the dream, or the Gestalt approach below, I usually got another dream reminder pretty quickly.

Sometimes, quite often in fact, associations did not work completely enough. For instance, the figure from the freezer elicited a few fruitful associations, not least to the monster created by Dr Frankenstein, to O’Neill’s powerful exploration of despair, and to the idea of the Iceman as a personification of Death, fears about which were part of the air I breathed in childhood as a result of my parents’ unassuageable grief at the death of my sister four years before I was born. Some of my poems testify to the powerful impact of this period on my mind.  However, not even these powerful links convinced me I’d completely decoded the dream.

  1. The Gestalt Method

This method was almost always the key to unlocking a code that associations could not decipher. As Ann Faraday explains in her Chapter 8, there are also ways for asking your dreams for help with decoding very resistant dreams (page 130):

Since the main problem in understanding the dream is to discover what issue on your mind or in your heart provoked the dream, you can take a shortcut by asking your dreams for help on a certain problem of emotional significance before falling sleep. . . . . Religious people to whom prayer comes naturally may like to ask God for enlightenment on the dream. However you frame your request, it is essential to have your recording equipment ready, since failure to do so is a sure sign that you’re not serious, and the unconscious mind is not fooled.

Before resorting to that, I generally tried the Gestalt approach. This involves role playing the dream element.

Take the figure from the freezer I described in the dream in the previous post. Once I spoke as the dream element (and you can also do this for inanimate objects – we will come back to this next time) its meaning became blindingly obvious fairly quickly. It is possible, and often necessary, to dialogue with the element as well. To do this you have to allocate different places in the room for the two or more elements to the dialogue to speak from. What follows is a reconstruction of work done many years ago.

The Iceman (from a kitchen chair): Why did you lock me away in here? What had I done? I have been shut away in the dark and the cold for I don’t know how long. Why are you so afraid of me? (Silence)

Me (from my armchair): I am scared of you, it’s true. But I swear I didn’t know I had done this to you. Can you promise me you mean me no harm?

The Iceman: I don’t want to harm you. I just want to be free. To be in the light and warm. I don’t know why you were so scared of me that you had to lock me up. (Silence)

Me: I’m not sure. There must have been something about you that scared me.  Can you guess what that might be? When did I lock you away?

The Iceman: I’m not sure. I’ve grown up in here. I was shut away when I was only a child.

To cut a long story short, it became clear that the pain and rage I felt as a child, when I was placed in hospital and operated on without really understanding why, had been unbearable. It also had associations with feelings of intense cold because of the way I experienced the chloroform they used as an anaesthetic. After cutting myself off from that part of me that felt the pain, I’d fed him with every subsequent unbearable pain or intolerable rage. In this way he became bigger and bigger and ever more scary. It became harder and harder to think of integrating that part of me again into my ordinary conscious experience.

Finally, in my imagination, there was a tearful reunion. I embraced the figure that had frightened me so much, welcomed him and brought him back into the warmth of my ordinary life. A key idea in dreamwork is to embrace what you fear and thereby reintegrate it. In that way we can gradually reclaim all our energy and all our powers. Even anger has a place in a constructive life. How else are we going to know how to mobilise ourselves to respond to evil and injustice when it crosses our path. I had repressed my pain and rage. Taking them out of the cage and reintegrating them is not the same as acting them out. Our culture is not good at treading the middle way between repression and disinhibition. The middle way is to remain aware of how you are feeling but to contain it, reflect upon it (something I’ve dealt with at length elsewhere) and decide how best to deal with and if appropriate express the feelings constructively.

We have reached the point where we are almost ready to tackle the possibility that dreams can give us access to the transcendent.

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Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens

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

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

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

(Shelley from the Preface to The Cenci)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with an earlier post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It has also given me some much needed thinking time before my next new sequence of posts comes out! This is the last of the sequence and looks at some general issues.

Where do I stand in all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our garden meadow

Schematic Presentation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dissolute Artist Problem

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

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

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

Two Key Issues

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

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions concerning the Model

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

One Size will not Fit All

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

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

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

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

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

Or of lighting its candle as in:

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

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

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

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

shrine-mirror

Shelley and the Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neardeathexperience

For source of image see link

Overarching Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art and the Artist – a final thought

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

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

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

Footnote:

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

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The Massacre at Paris 1792 Plundering the King´s Cellar at Paris (for source of image see link)

The Massacre at Paris 1792, a tendentious English take on the matter (for source of image see link)

Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion, restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 65)

As I am about to bring Shelley back into the frame with my next new post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago part way through. I will be checking each post carefully before I republish. I want to try and flag up places where my new understanding of the role of trauma shaping personality might help me see where any trauma in Shelley’s history might have had an impact on his art. Given my reading of Boarding School Syndrome, I can see that I will need to give these years of his life far more attention than I did last time. These first three re-published posts will be run consecutively. Others will follow after Monday’s new post.

As I indicated towards the end of the last post, as my reading of Richard Holmes’s 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced both by examples of his capacity for kindness at times and by the increasing depth and accessibility of his poetry.

I was also powerfully struck by how relevant his challenges and concerns still are to our world today. We also, as he was, are living in a country which watches terror abroad afraid that it will come to haunt us at home. Even though the desire for liberty had inspired the French Revolution, by the time the Jacobins gained power ruthless oppression had betrayed its original ideals, a pattern that Shelley, for reasons we’ll explore soon, became aware would tend to repeat itself. We have seen many of those repetitions take place across the world since his day, most conspicuously, but by no means only, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China.

As I explained last time, I will be starting with a helicopter survey of Shelley’s life. Next week I’ll be looking at some ideas about the life/art relationship in general before taking a closer look at Shelley’s poetry prior to attempting to formulate a model of creativity from the wreckage.

Early Influences

In childhood, it would seem, Shelley ruled the roost (page 3):

Bysshe, the favourite of the servants, and secure in his position as tribal chief, ran riot at Field Place [his childhood home].

His time at boarding school was a torment but he had two factors that helped him reduce the impact of the incessant bullying (page 5):

One was his imaginary world of monsters and demons and apparitions. The other was an unexpected discovery – he found he had inherited something his grandfather’s character, and had a violent and absolutely ungovernable temper once he grew angry.

The latter characteristic posed a problem for Shelley though (ibid.):

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

There are no reminiscences recorded by either of his parents about Shelley: all we know is that, as a child, he found his mother (page 11) ‘increasingly distant and unresponsive, and there are indications that he felt deeply rejected.’ His later relationship with his father, after the age of 18, was extremely fractious. He (page 12) ‘dramatised him as the worst kind of tyrant and hypocrite.’

While Holmes warns us to treat these ‘melodramatic’ descriptions with caution, they are very revealing about Shelley’s ‘mythopoeic faculty,’ a major factor in his later creativity. Later (page 105) Holmes indicates, in the accounts Shelley gave of his childhood, that he ‘could be very unscrupulous in adjusting the truth when the need arose,’ but that ‘it is difficult to tell how far Shelley really realised – or admitted to himself – what he was doing.’

My later reading about trauma, undertaken after I had finished this sequence, may shed further light on this. Allowing for a number of caveats, including the way his upbringing prior to boarding school had infused a degree of narcissistic entitlement into his character, it is possible that his fierce temper may be at least in part attributable to his schooling. Joy Schaverian, in her thought-provoking book Boarding School Syndrome, describes what she learnt from a patient she calls Theo, not his real name. Prior to therapy he had often withdrawn from his wife and family for reasons that were not clear to him. Only when he confronted an example of his own violence during his school days did he begin to realise more fully the dynamics of his withdrawal pattern (page 86):

He knew he could be meaner, and this became evident to him when a boy unfairly kicked him during a rugby match. The next time there was a scrum, he took the opportunity to hit that boy. This is depicted in the picture shown below. He was shocked by his own violence and deeply ashamed in telling this story. This brought to light another aspect of the rage of which he was so scared. Theo’s extreme self-control was mustered to keep this aspect of himself at bay. He was worried about how vengeful he had been on this occasion.

the-fight

Schooldays

A school contemporary at Syon House described Shelley (page 13) as having ‘considerable political talent, accompanied by a violent and extremely excitable temper.’

Shelley was also fascinated by science (page 16) in a ‘speculative and imaginative’ fashion, though ‘more naturally inclined to the field of social sciences – sociology, psychology, even parapsychology – than the physical ones.’

On his return to Field Place, the home of his childhood, after two years at Syon House, we see an escalation in the problematic side of his character (page 17):

Shelley’s natural mischievousness had become more uncontrollable, his games and experiment more violent, and his authority over his sisters more domineering.

A streak of indifference to others’ feelings, even cruelty, became apparent:

Shelley suggested that he will be able to cure his [sister’s] chilblains by [a] method of electrification, but his sister’s ‘terror overwhelmed all other feelings’ and she complained to their parents. Shelley was required to desist.

At Oxford he was later to torment his scout’s son, who had learning disabilities, with the same threat of electrification. His time at Eton replicated his experiences at Syon House, if not worse (page 19) since ‘the bullying by his fellow pupils was extremely severe.’ His experiences with authority were stained with the same dye so that (page 20):

He remembered these first years at Eton with an intensity of loathing that affected many of his later attitudes towards organised authority and social conformism.

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

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Mary Shelley's portrait by Richard Rothwell (for source of image see link)

Mary Shelley’s late portrait by Richard Rothwell (for source of image see link)

Briefly at Oxford

In his brief time at Oxford, before being sent down for publishing a pamphlet on atheism, he developed a close friendship with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the co-author of the pamphlet. Hogg has much to say about his impressions of Shelley. There was much he could not explain (page 42):

The fascination with firearms was one of many elements in Shelley’s character which Hogg, a very down-to-earth personality despite all his masterly sarcasms, could never really account for. Another was Shelley’s almost maniac disregard, on certain occasions, for the commonplace decencies of normal public behaviour, as the time when he seized a baby out of his mother’s arms while crossing Magdalen Bridge and began earnestly to question it about the nature of its Platonic pre-existence so that he might prove a point in an argument he was having with Hogg concerning metempsychosis. A third, and even more significant facet, which Hogg all his life tended to discount as mere comic ‘fancy,’ was Shelley’s natural and sometimes overwhelming sense of the macabre.

He delighted in ‘ritual horror sessions’ throughout his life and they were a constant marker of ‘the darker side of Shelley’s personality’ (pages 260-61). It is hardly surprising then that the most famous novel his second wife, Mary, ever wrote was Frankenstein.

He was also prone (page 114) to ‘attacks of hysteria; at its most extreme this could involve a screaming fit and complete prostration, and he would have to be put to bed and nursed.’

When the relationship with his father was moving towards meltdown over Shelley’s unorthodox behaviour and atheistic views, their shared inability to empathise with each other sank their chances of reconciliation (page 59):

Shelley could see no more than theological hypocrisy and paternal treachery; while Timothy could see no more than a spoilt and overconfident son dragging the whole family into social disgrace. So they were content to wound each other in the dark.

Boris Karloff as the Monster (For source of image see link)

Boris Karloff as the Monster (For source of image see link)

His Traits as an Adult

Empathy was never Shelley’s strong suit in his personal life in spite of his compassionate identification with the oppressed in the political sphere.

This lack was dramatically displayed in the tactless treatment of the Elizabeth Hitchener’s father: this lady was risking her good name by developing a close relationship with him as a married man of dubious reputation. In a letter responding to Mr Hitchener’s concerns, Shelley wrote (page 141):

‘What the world thinks of my actions ever has, & I trust ever will be a matter of complete indifference. Your daughter shares this sentiment with me, and we are both resolved to refer our actions to one tribunal only, that which Nature has implanted in us.’

Holmes’s comment says it all: ‘It was a lapse typical of Shelley, typical of his blind self-assertion and sudden explosions of high-mindedness.’ His subsequent behaviour towards her, as the relationship cooled on his side, indicated that he did not have the faintest idea about the damaging impact of all this on the life situation of a vulnerable woman of lower social status who had, up to that point, been establishing the viable foundation for a secure future. His conduct put this completely in jeopardy. I also recognise we are speaking of a nineteen-year-old youth – given the prominence of Isis/Daesh and the prevalence of narcissism, not a male age group renowned at present for its sensitivity and wisdom. However, Shelley’s conduct frequently placed him close to the extreme end of the inconsideration spectrum.

Holmes feels that the character of the monster in Mary’s Frankenstein was drawn in part from Shelley and that expressions such as (page 333) ‘ . . . misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous,’ from the monster, capture something of his psychodynamics. Shelley himself wrote of the monster (page 334):

‘Treat a person ill and he will become wicked.’ . . . . ‘It is thus that too often in society those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed by neglect and solitude of heart into a scourge and a curse.’ Implicitly, Shelley accepted his own identification as Frankenstein’s monster.

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

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

It is important to balance this with the generosity of his eventual treatment of Claire Clairmont at the time she was pregnant with Byron’s daughter (page 343). He admittedly had, unusually for him, a strong and protective connection with her, whose exact basis is hard to disentangle. Fiona MacCarthy, in her 2002 biography of Byron, is very clear (page 297-98) that ‘despite their close interdependence there was no evidence of a sexual bond between Shelley and Claire.’ There may have been such a connection at a later date, but this has not been confirmed beyond all doubt. Nevertheless, throughout the remainder of his short life he put himself out and sacrificed much to support her in her difficulties.

Shelley’s relationship with Byron was made more complex by his need to act as Claire’s advocate with Byron in terms of the future of their daughter, Allegra. Even without that, as MacCarthy indicates in her  biography of Byron (page 298), their relationship would always have been pulled in at least two directions:

They fascinated, maddened one another. Intellectually compatible they were yet poles apart, Byron upholding the traditional and factual bases of philosophical argument, Shelley pursuing the further reaches of the experimental and visionary.

It is also true that Byron found it helpful that there was someone else around whose behaviour was even more openly unconventional than his own.

As he grew older, though still only in his twenties which he never outgrew, his health was also becoming a problem. Holmes detects three aspects (page 143): ‘hysterical and nervous attacks after periods of great strain,’ symptoms of a chronic disease associated with his kidneys and bladder’ and an interconnected ‘psycho-somatic area.’

He was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

Incidentally, as his closeness to Godwin increased so did his distance from Elizabeth Hitchener, a painful development for her given how costly her association with Shelley was proving: Holmes (page 175) feels his behaviour demonstrated ‘a certain callous indifference to those he has grown disenchanted with.’

Another developing friendship, this time with the satirically inclined Thomas Love Peacock, helped him begin to learn how to ‘mock his own enthusiasms’ (page 174).

There was then an incident in Tremadoc, whose exact details are difficult to disentangle. It involved gunfire at night and what seemed to Shelley and his immediate relations to be a politically motivated attempt upon his life by disaffected locals whom his behaviour had antagonised. This, combined with his reaction to the Ireland experience, meant (page 198) that ‘he never returned’ to ‘political activism again.’ From that point on ‘Shelley regarded himself as a mouthpiece rather than as an instrument for political change.’ In a famous later phrase, he became ‘the trumpet of a prophecy,’ but ‘not the sword.’

Later still there was possibly an even more critical event: the suicide of his first wife, Harriet, to which his own callous disregard for her had made a special contribution. Claire Clairmont, to whom Shelley was closer than to anyone else in the world at that point, wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

It was because of the pain Shelley was causing those close to him that the painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, described Shelley (page 360) as ‘hypocritical’ for criticising Wordsworth for his indifference to the suffering of trout that had been caught. Haydon, after a bruising interaction as a Christian with Shelley’s militant atheism, found him proud, ‘domineering and insensitive.’ Hazlitt, for his part, felt he was (page 362) a ‘philosophic fanatic,’ and described him as a ‘man in knowledge, [but] a child of feeling.’

His Atheism

The issue of Shelley’s atheism may not be as straightforward as many, including Holmes, have liked to think.

I feel that he was probably not atheist in the sense that Dawkins uses the word. His prose, poetry and scribbled drafts are littered with such expressions (Ann Wroe’s Being Shelley page 157) as ‘One mind, the type of all . . .,’ ‘Great Spirit,’ ‘Immortal Deity/Whose throne is in the Heaven depth of Human thought,’ or, as I have just recently read in Epipsychidion, ‘The spirit of the worm beneath the sod/In love and worship, blends itself with God.’

In an address in 2008 on The Spiritual Foundation of Human Rights, Suheil Bushrui quotes from one of the best stanzas in Shelley’s uneven Adonais to prove he was a believer in the Absolute:

Each of the founders of the world’s religions has spoken of the Absolute, the one fountain of light and moral guidance, so eloquently expressed by Shelley in Adonais, his noble elegy written on the death of his fellow poet, John Keats:

‘The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.’

I think we can be certain, though, that Shelley did not believe in the same God as his Christian contemporaries.

Perhaps the closest we can get is the description of his beliefs in Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu (page 820):

In truth, Percy’s attitude to God was more complex than the word ‘atheist’ suggests. It is not surprising that the concept was inimical to someone so opposed to an established church not merely complicit, but deeply implicated, in the social and political oppression prevalent in England at the time. On the other hand, he was tremendously attracted to the pantheist life force of Tintern Abbey, and could not resist pleading the existence of a similar power in his poetry. However, he stopped well short of believing in a benevolent deity capable of intervening in human affairs. Much of his poetry tacitly accepts the existence of a superhuman ‘Power,’ but its moral character is not always clear. . . . He could also contemplate the possibility of the universe without a creator. If any phrase were used to encapsulate his position, it might be ‘awful doubt[1]’ – a feeling of awe for the power evident in the natural world, mixed with scepticism as to whether it reveals a divine presence.

We will complete this race through Shelley’s life tomorrow.

Footnote:

[1] Mont Blanc line 77.

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Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens

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

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

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

(Shelley from the Preface to The Cenci)

Where do I stand in all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our garden meadow

Schematic Presentation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dissolute Artist Problem

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

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

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

Two Key Issues

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

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions concerning the Model

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

One Size will not Fit All

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

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

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

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

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

Or of lighting its candle as in:

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

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

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

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

shrine-mirror

Shelley and the Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neardeathexperience

For source of image see link

Overarching Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art and the Artist – a final thought

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

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

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

Footnote:

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

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The Massacre at Paris 1792 Plundering the King´s Cellar at Paris (for source of image see link)

The Massacre at Paris 1792, a tendentious English take on the matter (for source of image see link)

Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion, restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 65)

As I indicated towards the end of the last post, as my reading of Richard Holmes’s 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced both by examples of his capacity for kindness at times and by the increasing depth and accessibility of his poetry.

I was also powerfully struck by how relevant his challenges and concerns still are to our world today. We also, as he was, are living in a country which watches terror abroad afraid that it will come to haunt us at home. Even though the desire for liberty had inspired the French Revolution, by the time the Jacobins gained power ruthless oppression had betrayed its original ideals, a pattern that Shelley, for reasons we’ll explore soon, became aware would tend to repeat itself. We have seen many of those repetitions take place across the world since his day, most conspicuously, but by no means only, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China.

As I explained last time, I will be starting with a helicopter survey of Shelley’s life. Next week I’ll be looking at some ideas about the life/art relationship in general before taking a closer look at Shelley’s poetry prior to attempting to formulate a model of creativity from the wreckage.

Early Influences

In childhood, it would seem, Shelley ruled the roost (page 3):

Bysshe, the favourite of the servants, and secure in his position as tribal chief, ran riot at Field Place [his childhood home].

His time at boarding school was a torment but he had two factors that helped him reduce the impact of the incessant bullying (page 5):

One was his imaginary world of monsters and demons and apparitions. The other was an unexpected discovery – he found he had inherited something his grandfather’s character, and had a violent and absolutely ungovernable temper once he grew angry.

The latter characteristic posed a problem for Shelley though (ibid.):

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

There are no reminiscences recorded by either of his parents about Shelley: all we know is that, as a child, he found his mother (page 11) ‘increasingly distant and unresponsive, and there are indications that he felt deeply rejected.’ His later relationship with his father, after the age of 18, was extremely fractious. He (page 12) ‘dramatised him as the worst kind of tyrant and hypocrite.’

While Holmes warns us to treat these ‘melodramatic’ descriptions with caution, they are very revealing about Shelley’s ‘mythopoeic faculty,’ a major factor in his later creativity. Later (page 105) Holmes indicates, in the accounts Shelley gave of his childhood, that he ‘could be very unscrupulous in adjusting the truth when the need arose,’ but that ‘it is difficult to tell how far Shelley really realised – or admitted to himself – what he was doing.’

Schooldays

A school contemporary at Syon House described him (page 13) as having ‘considerable political talent, accompanied by a violent and extremely excitable temper.’

Shelley was also fascinated by science (page 16) in a ‘speculative and imaginative’ fashion, though ‘more naturally inclined to the field of social sciences – sociology, psychology, even parapsychology – than the physical ones.’

On his return to Field Place, the home of his childhood, after two years at Syon House, we see an escalation in the problematic side of his character (page 17):

Shelley’s natural mischievousness had become more uncontrollable, his games and experiment more violent, and his authority over his sisters more domineering.

A streak of indifference to others’ feelings, even cruelty, became apparent:

Shelley suggested that he will be able to cure his [sister’s] chilblains by [a] method of electrification, but his sister’s ‘terror overwhelmed all other feelings’ and she complained to their parents. Shelley was required to desist.

At Oxford he was later to torment his scout’s son, who had learning disabilities, with the same threat of electrification. His time at Eton replicated his experiences at Syon House, if not worse (page 19) since ‘the bullying by his fellow pupils was extremely severe.’ His experiences with authority were stained with the same dye so that (page 20):

He remembered these first years at Eton with an intensity of loathing that affected many of his later attitudes towards organised authority and social conformism.

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

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Mary Shelley's portrait by Richard Rothwell (for source of image see link)

Mary Shelley’s late portrait by Richard Rothwell (for source of image see link)

Briefly at Oxford

In his brief time at Oxford, before being sent down for publishing a pamphlet on atheism, he developed a close friendship with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the co-author of the pamphlet. Hogg has much to say about his impressions of Shelley. There was much he could not explain (page 42):

The fascination with firearms was one of many elements in Shelley’s character which Hogg, a very down-to-earth personality despite all his masterly sarcasms, could never really account for. Another was Shelley’s almost maniac disregard, on certain occasions, for the commonplace decencies of normal public behaviour, as the time when he seized a baby out of his mother’s arms while crossing Magdalen Bridge and began earnestly to question it about the nature of its Platonic pre-existence so that he might prove a point in an argument he was having with Hogg concerning metempsychosis. A third, and even more significant facet, which Hogg all his life tended to discount as mere comic ‘fancy,’ was Shelley’s natural and sometimes overwhelming sense of the macabre.

He delighted in ‘ritual horror sessions’ throughout his life and they were a constant marker of ‘the darker side of Shelley’s personality’ (pages 260-61). It is hardly surprising then that the most famous novel his second wife, Mary, ever wrote was Frankenstein.

He was also prone (page 114) to ‘attacks of hysteria; at its most extreme this could involve a screaming fit and complete prostration, and he would have to be put to bed and nursed.’

When the relationship with his father was moving towards meltdown over Shelley’s unorthodox behaviour and atheistic views, their shared inability to empathise with each other sank their chances of reconciliation (page 59):

Shelley could see no more than theological hypocrisy and paternal treachery; while Timothy could see no more than a spoilt and overconfident son dragging the whole family into social disgrace. So they were content to wound each other in the dark.

Boris Karloff as the Monster (For source of image see link)

Boris Karloff as the Monster (For source of image see link)

His Traits as an Adult

Empathy was never Shelley’s strong suit in his personal life in spite of his compassionate identification with the oppressed in the political sphere.

This lack was dramatically displayed in the tactless treatment of the Elizabeth Hitchener’s father: this lady was risking her good name by developing a close relationship with him as a married man of dubious reputation. In a letter responding to Mr Hitchener’s concerns, Shelley wrote (page 141):

‘What the world thinks of my actions ever has, & I trust ever will be a matter of complete indifference. Your daughter shares this sentiment with me, and we are both resolved to refer our actions to one tribunal only, that which Nature has implanted in us.’

Holmes’s comment says it all: ‘It was a lapse typical of Shelley, typical of his blind self-assertion and sudden explosions of high-mindedness.’ His subsequent behaviour towards her, as the relationship cooled on his side, indicated that he did not have the faintest idea about the damaging impact of all this on the life situation of a vulnerable woman of lower social status who had, up to that point, been establishing the viable foundation for a secure future. His conduct put this completely in jeopardy. I also recognise we are speaking of a nineteen-year-old youth – given the prominence of Isis/Daesh and the prevalence of narcissism, not a male age group renowned at present for its sensitivity and wisdom. However, Shelley’s conduct frequently placed him close to the extreme end of the inconsideration spectrum.

Holmes feels that the character of the monster in Mary’s Frankenstein was drawn in part from Shelley and that expressions such as (page 333) ‘ . . . misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous,’ from the monster, capture something of his psychodynamics. Shelley himself wrote of the monster (page 334):

‘Treat a person ill and he will become wicked.’ . . . . ‘It is thus that too often in society those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed by neglect and solitude of heart into a scourge and a curse.’ Implicitly, Shelley accepted his own identification as Frankenstein’s monster.

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

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

It is important to balance this with the generosity of his eventual treatment of Claire Clairmont at the time she was pregnant with Byron’s daughter (page 343). He admittedly had, unusually for him, a strong and protective connection with her, whose exact basis is hard to disentangle. Fiona MacCarthy, in her 2002 biography of Byron, is very clear (page 297-98) that ‘despite their close interdependence there was no evidence of a sexual bond between Shelley and Claire.’ There may have been such a connection at a later date, but this has not been confirmed beyond all doubt. Nevertheless, throughout the remainder of his short life he put himself out and sacrificed much to support her in her difficulties.

Shelley’s relationship with Byron was made more complex by his need to act as Claire’s advocate with Byron in terms of the future of their daughter, Allegra. Even without that, as MacCarthy indicates in her  biography of Byron (page 298), their relationship would always have been pulled in at least two directions:

They fascinated, maddened one another. Intellectually compatible they were yet poles apart, Byron upholding the traditional and factual bases of philosophical argument, Shelley pursuing the further reaches of the experimental and visionary.

It is also true that Byron found it helpful that there was someone else around whose behaviour was even more openly unconventional than his own.

As he grew older, though still only in his twenties which he never outgrew, his health was also becoming a problem. Holmes detects three aspects (page 143): ‘hysterical and nervous attacks after periods of great strain,’ symptoms of a chronic disease associated with his kidneys and bladder’ and an interconnected ‘psycho-somatic area.’

He was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

Incidentally, as his closeness to Godwin increased so did his distance from Elizabeth Hitchener, a painful development for her given how costly her association with Shelley was proving: Holmes (page 175) feels his behaviour demonstrated ‘a certain callous indifference to those he has grown disenchanted with.’

Another developing friendship, this time with the satirically inclined Thomas Love Peacock, helped him begin to learn how to ‘mock his own enthusiasms’ (page 174).

There was then an incident in Tremadoc, whose exact details are difficult to disentangle. It involved gunfire at night and what seemed to Shelley and his immediate relations to be a politically motivated attempt upon his life by disaffected locals whom his behaviour had antagonised. This, combined with his reaction to the Ireland experience, meant (page 198) that ‘he never returned’ to ‘political activism again.’ From that point on ‘Shelley regarded himself as a mouthpiece rather than as an instrument for political change.’ In a famous later phrase, he became ‘the trumpet of a prophecy,’ but ‘not the sword.’

Later still there was possibly an even more critical event: the suicide of his first wife, Harriet, to which his own callous disregard for her had made a special contribution. Claire Clairmont, to whom Shelley was closer than to anyone else in the world at that point, wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

It was because of the pain Shelley was causing those close to him that the painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, described Shelley (page 360) as ‘hypocritical’ for criticising Wordsworth for his indifference to the suffering of trout that had been caught. Haydon, after a bruising interaction as a Christian with Shelley’s militant atheism, found him proud, ‘domineering and insensitive.’ Hazlitt, for his part, felt he was (page 362) a ‘philosophic fanatic,’ and described him as a ‘man in knowledge, [but] a child of feeling.’

His Atheism

The issue of Shelley’s atheism may not be as straightforward as many, including Holmes, have liked to think.

I feel that he was probably not atheist in the sense that Dawkins uses the word. His prose, poetry and scribbled drafts are littered with such expressions (Ann Wroe’s Being Shelley page 157) as ‘One mind, the type of all . . .,’ ‘Great Spirit,’ ‘Immortal Deity/Whose throne is in the Heaven depth of Human thought,’ or, as I have just recently read in Epipsychidion, ‘The spirit of the worm beneath the sod/In love and worship, blends itself with God.’

In an address in 2008 on The Spiritual Foundation of Human Rights, Suheil Bushrui quotes from one of the best stanzas in Shelley’s uneven Adonais to prove he was a believer in the Absolute:

Each of the founders of the world’s religions has spoken of the Absolute, the one fountain of light and moral guidance, so eloquently expressed by Shelley in Adonais, his noble elegy written on the death of his fellow poet, John Keats:

‘The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.’

I think we can be certain, though, that Shelley did not believe in the same God as his Christian contemporaries.

Perhaps the closest we can get is the description of his beliefs in Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu (page 820):

In truth, Percy’s attitude to God was more complex than the word ‘atheist’ suggests. It is not surprising that the concept was inimical to someone so opposed to an established church not merely complicit, but deeply implicated, in the social and political oppression prevalent in England at the time. On the other hand, he was tremendously attracted to the pantheist life force of Tintern Abbey, and could not resist pleading the existence of a similar power in his poetry. However, he stopped well short of believing in a benevolent deity capable of intervening in human affairs. Much of his poetry tacitly accepts the existence of a superhuman ‘Power,’ but its moral character is not always clear. . . . He could also contemplate the possibility of the universe without a creator. If any phrase were used to encapsulate his position, it might be ‘awful doubt[1]’ – a feeling of awe for the power evident in the natural world, mixed with scepticism as to whether it reveals a divine presence.

We will complete this race through Shelley’s life on Thursday.

Footnote:

[1] Mont Blanc line 77.

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