Posts Tagged ‘FWH Myers’

Even though, unlike Hughes, I do not consider Plath as great a poet as Emily Dickinson, her poems about nature, such as The Bee Meeting and The Arrival of the Bee Box resonate more positively with me, so her work is not all bad. In such poems I am not repelled by too much intense self-centred negativity, or excessive fragmentation, and there’s some music too and an intelligible narrative. The closing lines of The Arrival of the Bee Box provide a brief illustration:

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

I suspect that these are neither her most admired nor her most well-known poems, which perhaps says something disturbing about our culture.

Back to the Darkness

However, her later darkly intense poems, as we considered last time, pose significant problems. Yes, she was in emotional pain, and to that extent deserves our compassion. However, the extreme intensity of that pain poured into her poetry and impacted strongly on others as we have seen. As she brought it into the public domain in this damaging way we are, I think, justified in trying to decide whether, first of all, that was a wise thing to do, and secondly whether that helped her create great poetry.

I have come to believe, as a result of these recent explorations, that her intense suffering was mostly of her own making, rather than inherent in the raw experience of her life: life brought some grit with it, certainly, but the massive boulder she got left with, that weighed so heavily on her shoulders, was largely the result of her escalating fabrications.

Deaths of the Poets

Perhaps she had been primed to escalate things in this way by her upbringing, as Anne Stevenson suggests in this quote from Farley and Roberts’ Deaths of Poets:[1]

You have to understand how very seriously Americans took themselves then. . . . You take yourself as an individual so seriously, you are the centre of the universe. You are brought up that way, competitively, to get to the top of the ladder, and then you discover it’s a bit dizzying up there! Then you run into personal troubles – somebody lets you down or betrays you – something you feel you can only remedy by this particular kind of vengeance against yourself.’

Nonetheless, escalate she did, for sure, and both her poetry and her life, in my view, paid a high price for that.

Her poetry may successfully express that kind of truth to personal experience, but is that enough to make a great poem? Or, does poetry have a duty to be more balanced and even to access higher and less partial truths? I think it does. I will try and explore now why I believe that to be true.

Haemorrhaging Hurt

When we read Myers speaking about what he refers to as genius[2] as ‘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,’ it would seem to give warrant at first glance to the kind of disorganised intensity Plath all too often displays.

However, there is an important caveat. Myers is more cautious about Blake[3] whom he regards as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: ‘throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow.’

This caveat applies particularly strongly when uprush sinks into venting negativity. This is where Hatcher, as we saw earlier. sheds useful light on the matter in his discussion of Hayden[4] when he states ‘it was never Hayden’s purpose to use his poetry to bleed on his pages or to condemn others’ and quotes Gwendolyn Brooks for a useful comparison:[5]

Brooks in her review described two sorts of poets – the one who ‘mixes with mud’ and writes in the midst of feeling, ‘his wounds like faucets above his page’, and a second sort of poet who ‘is amenable to a clarifying enchantment via the power of Art’, who has a ‘reverence for the word Art’, who, in effect, is more studied, more analytical. She goes on to say that while we need both sorts, Hayden is clearly the latter.

My sense is that maybe we do need both, but perhaps they are not of equal value.

Hatcher explains one possible reason why:[6]

[The Lion] . . . distinguishes between the unconscious self, in its primitive anger and uncontrolled raw emotions, and the conscious artist who enters the cage of self to control and channel that raw emotion and insight into intelligible pattern and form.

He quotes Wilburn Williams, Jr. in support[7] in his study of Angle of Ascent:

Hayden had the capacity to ‘Objectivise his own subjectivity. His private anguish never locks him into the sterile dead-end of solipsism; it impels him outward into the world.’

A good example of this ability is to be found in The Whipping. The poem starts from a perspective that suggests the poet is simply the observer.

The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand.  His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:

Then it switches briefly to the first person, and we realise the poet was the boy who had been whipped:

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .

Hayden comments:[8]

halfway through the fifth stanza, when the whipping is over, the poem shifts back to the third-person point of view. The effect, ostensibly a violation of narrative logic, is incredibly effective, implying among other things the poet can be objective in recounting his past until the scene recalls ‘woundlike memories’ and he instantly loses that analytical perspective.

Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

Even in describing an experience with his mother that is at least as painful if not more so than Plath’s with her father, not only does he not resort to the kind of blame-drenching histrionics she uses, but is also capable of stepping into his abusive mother’s shoes to share his sense that her ‘lifelong hidings’ explain, even if they do not excuse, her brutality.

Hayden also makes reference to the Holocaust in other poems, but they are clearly are justified by the extreme trauma of his own immediate history, as Hatcher explains:[9]

he sees in the concentration camp victims the faces of his childhood playmates and in the racism of South Africa’s apartheid and the violence of the Korean War evidence that the evils he has chronicled are neither finished nor peculiarly American.

The parallels between slavery and the Holocaust are not accidental because Hitler learned from the United States. This is part of John Fitzgerald Medina’s thesis, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he describes how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. Linking the two poetically is therefore completely valid, in this case, but not, I think, when there is no such correspondence as in Plath’s.

This section deals with possible reasons why, no matter how intensely the poet may feel something, that does not in itself, no matter how powerfully expressed it may be, justify the damage it might do or guarantee the poetry into which it is spilled will be great.

There is also another perhaps even more important consideration.

Maintaining a Balance between Light and Dark

Robert Hayden

Hatcher summarises this possibility at one point by quoting Hayden saying[10] ‘if there exists a “poetry of despair” and rejection, there is also a poetry that affirms the humane and spiritual,’ and goes on to explain that:[11]

It is appropriate, therefore, that while in over twenty poems Hayden used an image of night or darkness to represent this period [in human history], in only two is there no light, no glimmer of hope.

It is in an article he wrote for the Association of Bahá’í Studies in 1990 that Hatcher shares other useful insights on this issue. For example:[12]

Hayden is able to hint at the obstacle to this process [of realizing our essential oneness] that racism imposes, hint at the ultimate escape from the clutches of this evil, and yet refrain from becoming dogmatic, doctrinaire, or didactic. He manages to achieve this by employing symbols, by constructing a pattern of images, and by distributing the parts of this vision among many poems rather than by attempting to incorporate the entire thought into a single piece.

He isn’t blind to the darkness but manages to balance it with light:[13]

Therefore, while much of Hayden’s poetry seems focused on existential bewilderment, he also has abundant indices to a future condition in which humanity has been cleansed of prejudice and provincialism and has achieved a state of natural nobility.

Even so:[14]

For a number of reasons, among them being Hayden’s own personal groping to discover a sense of self, Hayden chose to focus more forcefully on enunciating the terror of transition than on basking in the joy of progress towards that long-awaited shore.

Nevertheless, rarely are even his most brutal poems without some hope, without an important sign or symbol of that future light shining in the darkness of our terror and despair.

In a sense he is voicing what many of us struggle to articulate:[15]

So it is that the voice in Hayden’s poetry often cries out in the midst of our collective labor, coaching our common pain, helping us enunciate our shared confusion and consternation even while pointing to the glimmer of the morning light in our present darkness. Perhaps he saw his function as artist to help us recognize how, like Arachne in his poem “Richard Hunt’s’ Arachne’,” all of us are caught in “the moment’s centrifuge of dying/ becoming,” our eyes “brimming with horrors/ of becoming,” our mouth shaping “a cry it cannot utter,”(Collected 113) and so he tries to utter it for us.

Hayden is not claiming the darkness is not terrifying at times – it’s just not all there is.

Ann Boyles, in her article in the Journal of Bahá’í Studies 1992, quotes Glaysher as being of essentially the same mind:[16]

In an article in World Order Magazine (“Re-Centering’-’ 9-17), Frederick Glaysher points out that in a world where the “center” has been lost, a world where chaos reigns and where few people see divine order, Robert Hayden’s poems seek to re-establish that center (at least in the literary world) and to give the chaos some meaning.

She concludes that[17] ‘The presence and form of both anguish and anodyne reflect the two-edged nature of the dream. One sees the same dualism elsewhere in Hayden, as in the “deathbed childbed age” (1.10) of “Words in the Mourning Time.” In this dualism Hayden consistently transcends the negative in favour of a view that strives towards hope.’

In the problematic later poems of Plath I feel there is a surfeit of anguish and an absence of anodyne, and for that reason also they forfeit the hallmark of great poetry, despite their many admirers.

My final verdict?

Her sense of identity and self was anything but positive and secure, the root I feel of the exaggerated martyrdom of her late poetry. We ended up not looking at where the truth about her life lies amongst the conflicting reports, but what is the relationship between her poetry and truth, something that has possibly fed a false image of the person. She became an icon because many women have suffered as intensely as she claims to have done, but we have to recognize nonetheless that in terms of her life her later poetry is self dramatizing and to that degree inauthentic, filled with many untrustworthy and potentially offensive hyperboles.

This caused Perloff to question the value of Plath’s poetry:[18]

Any reader can compile his own list . . . of lines that often look like first drafts of the Ariel poems, and one begins to wonder whether Sylvia Plath is really the major writer Alvarez describes, or whether she is not perhaps an extraordinarily gifted minor poet, whose lyric intensity seemed more impressive when we encountered it in the slim and rigorously selected Ariel than when we view it in the new perspective afforded by the publication of her uncollected poems.

I think I need to clarify here that I do not accept the idea of solving for the unknown, that Hayden borrowed from Auden, as the recipe for all great poetry. Poetry has other other equally valid consciousness raising potentials, one of which, for me at least, concerns expanding our compass of compassion.

So, I have to ask myself at this point, does Plath’s poetry help us do that?

My answer to that so far is ‘No.’ She seems to present her state of mind as though it is all that matters. All too often, her level of vindictive self-justification, which disproportionately denigrates others, constricts rather than expands our empathy. She tries to draw us into her toxic perspective.

As we saw in The Whipping, Hayden transcends the limitations of his own perspective, lifting his poem to a higher level of understanding, which in turn enhances our level of consciousness.

The most that Plath’s later more unbalanced poems do is shed light on the workings of a deeply disturbed sensibility. To the extent that they tempt others to join her, they are potentially dangerous: to the extent that they help some of us understand her state of mind more deeply, they are useful. But their use seems clinical rather than poetic.

Emily Dickinson’s poems provide powerful and mind-expanding examples of what even a relatively subjective approach can achieve, strongly suggesting why she is the greater poet and why intensity is not always bad. A poem of hers I flagged up in advance is a good illustration of this.

Emily Dickinson


Her sense of identity and self was anything but positive and secure, the root I feel of the exaggerated martyrdom of her late poetry. We ended up not looking at where the truth about her life lies amongst the conflicting reports, but what is the relationship between her poetry and truth, something that has possibly fed a false image of the person. She became an icon because many women have suffered as intensely as she claims to have done, but we have to recognize nonetheless that in terms of her life her later poetry is self dramatizing and to that degree inauthentic, filled with many untrustworthy and potentially offensive hyperboles.

This caused Perloff to question the value of Plath’s poetry:[18]

Any reader can compile his own list . . . of lines that often look like first drafts of the Ariel poems, and one begins to wonder whether Sylvia Plath is really the major writer Alvarez describes, or whether she is not perhaps an extraordinarily gifted minor poet, whose lyric intensity seemed more impressive when we encountered it in the slim and rigorously selected Ariel than when we view it in the new perspective afforded by the publication of her uncollected poems.

In all fairness, as a closing comment, I have to admit that, for the most part, stylistically Hayden’s poetry does not resonate with me anywhere near as strongly as Mew’s or Dickinson’s, though he was a valuable equally modernist lens through which to examine Plath’s work. I’m out of tune with most modernity, including the mysteriously popular Clarice Cliff and her gaudy pottery abstractions. I was going to say far more about Mew in this sequence but it has gone on for far too long already so will just include these links to my posts about her.

There are moments of more positive resonance in modern poetry. Revisiting MacNeice’s Autumn Journal recently reminded me of its brilliance in capturing the flow of experience in places. There was a similar flow to Mew along with a perspective resonant with Hayden’s American Journal (the echo in the titles is, I suspect, accidental). Both are acting in a way as visitors from another planet capturing our days. Both fit better with my taste, than Hayden’s supposed masterpiece The Middle Passage, even though in the opinion of Christopher Buck and Derik Smith in their article in Oxford Research Encyclopaedia it was:[19]

Arguably his greatest masterpiece, [and] required considerable research on slavery, which Hayden did at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Collection in Harlem during the summer of 1941.

It also proved, in their view, significantly influential: ‘Hayden’s method, which involved diving into the historical archive to bring to life a record of the past that had been marginalized and suppressed, has proven paradigmatic for many history-minded poets of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.’

I feel we are in desperate need of a poetry that is more accessible, capable of reaching more people in an inspiring and mind-expanding fashion. Hatcher seems to favour poems that require great effort to understand. Is there a danger, when poetry becomes too esoteric and therefore by implication elitist, it will become increasingly side-lined, comparable to when the pared back fragmentation of modernism, in my view, destroys the music as well as the meaning of a poem.

Time to stop now – my ruminations on this will continue until my dying day, I expect, but I can’t criticise Plath for endlessly spilling her subjectivity across the page and then do the same thing myself.


[1]. Deaths of Poets – page 263.
[2]. Irreducible Mind – page 426.
[3]. Op. cit. – page 445.
[4]. From the Auroral Darkness – page 26.
[5]. Op. cit. – page 82).
[6]. Op. cit. – page 112).
[7]. Op. cit. – page 256).
[8]. Op. cit. – page 260.
[9]. Op. cit. – page 121).
[10]. Op. cit. – page 252.
[11]. Op. cit. – page 277.
[12]. Racial Identity and the Patterns of Consolation in the Poetry of Robert Hayden – page 40.
[13]. Op. cit. – page 42.
[14]. Op. cit. – page 43.
[15]. Op. cit. – page 46.
[16] “Angle of Ascent”, The: Process and Achievement in the Work of Robert Hayden – page 5.
[17] Op. cit. – page 14.
[18] http://marjorieperloff.blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Chap-17-Perloff.pdf – page 588.
[19] Oxford Research Encyclopaedia – page 7.

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Glass table with book & VG

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

I don’t think I have ever republished a sequence so quickly, but last Monday’s post has hopefully made it glaringly obvious why I have felt compelled to do so this time. This is the last of the five posts.

Art and Illness

I have blogged at length elsewhere in these pages about the possible links between art and mental health so I relished the opportunity, at the end of this sequence of posts, to see if what van Gogh wrote from his own experience sheds any further light on the matter, over and above what I have touched on in the earlier ones.

I think I need to take this in three steps.

First I need to look at what the letters say about the actual experiences. From there I can move to looking at any conclusions he and his brother may have drawn about the nature of van Gogh’s problem and the relation it has to his art. Lastly, I will add some further information tentatively into the mix to try and make my own sense of the matter. To do so I will draw, amongst other things, on a very interesting account of the possible epilepsy of van Gogh’s American near contemporary Emily Dickinson.

  1. His Experience

It is in the later letters, after his rift with Gauguin, that we get the clearest account of what the breakdowns feel like from the inside. The first thing he mentions (page 444) when speaking ‘of my own condition – I am so grateful for yet another thing. I’ve noticed that others, too, hear sounds and strange voices during their attacks, as I did, and that things seem to change before their very eyes.’ The reason he has been given for these hallucinations follows shortly after (page 445): his problem was in both sight and hearing at the same time ‘which is usual at the outset of epilepsy.’

In Arles, after an attack in July 1889, he describes what happened (page 449): ‘I apparently pick up dirt from the ground and eat it.’ De Leeuw expands on this: ‘A swollen throat made taking food difficult. Because he had also put paint in his mouth and had drunk turpentine, he was ordered not to do any painting until further notice…’ There were mentions of the parallels with Dostoyevsky. Referring to Delacroix (page 452), he wonders whether he will be the same ‘in the sense that my sad illness makes me work in pent-up fury – very slowly – but without leaving off from morning till night – and – that is probably the secret – to work long and slowly.’ Interestingly, he dates the beginning of his problems to Paris (page 454) ‘when all this was coming on.’

He worries (page 459) whether ‘a more violent attack could destroy my ability to paint for good.’ Grimly he next observes ‘I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.’ He refers also (page 460) to the attacks taking ‘a religious turn.’ In late 1889 he had another violent attack in which (page 475) ‘he had again tried to poison himself by swallowing paint,’ as a result his doctor ‘decided once more that until further notice he must confine himself to drawing.’

Dr Gachet

Dr Gachet

On his move to Auvers-sur-Oise, he made a sardonic observation about Dr Gachet, the homeopath and psychiatrist who will play such a key role in his last few months of life (page 489):

Gachet, however, was not only an eccentric but seemed to be at least as neurotic as the afflicted artist, which caused van Gogh to observe, “Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don’t they both end up in the ditch?”

During this most vexed period, the art he produced was receiving high praise and greater recognition, including from Gauguin who wrote (page 494):

Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

His brother’s sudden problems, mainly about his work, money issues and his child’s health, came as a stressful shock to van Gogh, not least because his brother was turning to him for advice and perhaps even eventual financial support, not things that Vincent felt well-equipped to provide.

  1. His Perspective

He is very explicit that art at least in part depends upon a high degree of control, something not associated in his mind with neurosis or mental disturbance (page 206):

What is drawing? How does one come to it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How is one to get through that wall – since pounding at it is of no use? In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it steadily and patiently. . . . . As it is with art so it is with other things. And great things are not something accidental, they must be distinctly willed.

He is of the same view as Myers was, that inspiration needs to be controlled if it is to be effective (page 209):

He . . . mentioned the fact that as soon as the landscape painter and Martinus Boks was admitted to a lunatic asylum, his colleagues’ appreciation of his work began to increase. Van Gogh observed this phenomenon with not a little irony. That his own work would be linked to his mental illness by later generations renders these comments particularly poignant. In general, however, his reactions to his colleagues’ afflictions were very down-to-earth. Thus he had nothing positive to say about the effects of [another artist’s] condition on his work.

A related point comes when, in powerful terms, he compares his own situation to his brother’s (page 380-81):

Consider . . . . the new painters still isolated, poor, treated as madmen, and because of this treatment actually going insane, at least as far as their social life is concerned – then remember that you are doing exactly the same job as these primitive painters, since you provide them with money and sell their canvases, which enables them to produce others.

If a painter ruins himself emotionally by working hard at his painting, and renders himself unfit for so much else, family life, &c., &c., if, consequently, he paints not only with colour but with self-sacrifice and self-denial and a broken heart, then your own work is not only no better paid, but costs you, in exactly the same way as a painter, this half-deliberate, half-accidental eclipse of your personality.

In his period of incarceration there is a revealing exchange of letters between the brothers (page 447): Theo praises van Gogh for the intensity of the colour in his recent pictures and for having conveyed ‘the quintessence of your thoughts about nature and living beings,’ while expressing anxiety about how much ‘that brain of yours must have laboured, and how you have risked everything in venturing to the very brink, where vertigo is inevitable.’

Vincent does seem to feel at one point, after the break with Gauguin, that (page 428) ‘I must start afresh, but I shall never again be able to reach the heights to which the illness to some extent led me.’ The caveat – ‘to some extent’ – is probably significant.

Overall he does not see a close positive relationship between art and mental breakdown. He does see some kind of relationship though. This is not conforming to the conventional 19th Century myth of believing that being mad is an essential prerequisite of genius, but rather in terms of how the pressures society places on the artist can precipitate a breakdown. When you take into account his acknowledgement, in another letter already quoted, that their shared heredity may be making a contribution to their instability he is not undermining this main point. Van Gogh had speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.

  1. My Perspective
FWH Myers

FWH Myers

The ideas that the Kellys explore in depth in their comprehensive survey Irreducible Mind is of great relevance here. I will shortly be republishing them. For present purposes I’ll simply use one quotation from that sequence. Myers had little patience with those in the 19th Century who conflated genius and madness and subscribed to a ‘degeneracy’ theory. However, he did manage to sift some flecks of truth from its silt (page 471):

… [G]enius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service of supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.

On the issue of epilepsy, which is the diagnosis favoured by the authors of Van Gogh: The Life though not by Wilfred Niels Arnold who backs the porphyria hypothesis (see below), I was reminded of the possibility, explored by Lyndall Gordon in her book Lives Like Loaded Guns, that Emily Dickinson might well have suffered from epilepsy. Regardless of whether this theory should prove true, her treatment of the problem in a 19th Century context gives us a sense of what van Gogh might have also experienced within himself, during his treatment and from his friends and family.

Gordon quotes from Dickinson, suggesting she was covertly conveying what the experience of a fit was like – covertly because of the social stigma attached to the illness (page 116):

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit –

After the fit, Gordon explains (page 118), the brain sinks into a ‘Fog’ – something that Dickinson describes as ‘the Hour of Lead.’

The reaction of society was harsh, fuelled by the strong stigma which Gordon feels is the explanation for Dickinson’s lifelong seclusion, imposed on by her family for her protection and willingly accepted by Emily as it fostered her creativity (page 119):

In the 19th century, epileptics were sometimes incarcerated in asylums, and the more advanced asylums segregated them: too disturbing for the mentally ill.… Families therefore colluded to keep the conditions a lifelong secret.

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

Even Dickinson’s need for medication was kept secret. The reason has never been clear. Gordon feels that (page 122) ‘[t]he undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time with “hysteria,” masturbation, syphilis and impairment of the intellect leading to “epileptic insanity.”’

Gordon plays with interesting possible associations between Dickinson’s epilepsy and her creativity. She quotes Dickinson as saying (page 124):

‘I like a look of Agony,’ she said, because Agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for the poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ of her early thirties had lain their Missiles by –,’ though the Thunder that once brought ‘the bolt’ did rumble still.

I am not really competent at this point, not having explored in any detail the nature of epileptic experience, to conclude either that Gordon is correct about Dickinson’s epilepsy, let alone whether such a perspective could lend any support to the idea that something about Vincent’s experience of epilepsy enriched his art. I am also aware that he undoubtedly experienced depression and intense anxiety at times, and that various other factors have been adduced to explain this combination of difficulties. Amongst these are: porphyria [1], which has been strongly argued for but not widely accepted; bipolar disorder, which many feel explains ‘Van Gogh’s extreme enthusiasm and dedication to first religion and then art’ as well as his subsequent exhaustion and depression; absinthe, whose toxic component, thujone, is claimed to have worked against Van Gogh, aggravating his epilepsy, suspected porphyria or possible manic depression, as well as, in high doses causing him to see objects in yellow; and lead poisoning, one of whose symptoms is swelling of the retinas, which can cause one to see light in circles like halos around objects, as in paintings like The Starry Night [2]. Blumer summarised what seems to be the general consensus when he wrote in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002 [3]:

Henri Gastaut, in a study of the artist’s life and medical history published in 1956, identified van Gogh’s major illness during the last two years of his life as temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion. In essence, Gastaut confirmed the diagnosis originally made by the French physicians who had treated van Gogh. However, van Gogh had earlier suffered two distinct episodes of reactive depression, and there are clearly bipolar aspects to his history.

The best I can say, as a diagnostic sceptic who distrusts simplistic one-dimensional explanations of phenomena as multi-faceted as a human being, is that when I stood in front of Cypresses and Two Women, I felt it might be recording some kind of altered state of consciousness, or possibly a strong perceptual distortion of uncertain cause. I am aware that van Gogh cultivated the expression of intensity in his art, not just in terms of ‘an intensity of colour . . . not achieved before’ as Theo pointed out (page 447) but also involving what his brother termed ‘a frenzy’ which made them seem ‘a little further removed from nature.’ Whether this was a quality of perception borrowed from his memory of his ‘attacks,’ perceptual distortions caused by toxins, or whether it was simply part of his search for that (page 448) ‘momentary revelation of superhuman infinitude,’ which he found both in Rembrandt and in Shakespeare, is impossible for me to determine at this point. Whatever the influences upon them, partly material and possibly also sublime, these paintings are works of inspired creativity, which will inevitably have a powerful impact on any careful observer.

A particularly telling perspective, which suggests that something rather uncanny was going which can’t reduce his depiction of a starry night simply to lead poisoning, is explained in the TED talk at the bottom of this post. A friend kindly alerted me to this after I had started posting about van Gogh.


Which brings us on to the matter of spirituality, which is never far away where van Gogh is concerned. How does his spirituality relate to his art?

First and foremost, it must be remembered that he shifted in vocation from preacher to painter.

He later, in 1881, expressed regret for his earlier intense sense of mission (page 123):

If there is anything I regret then it is that period when I allowed mystical and theological profundities to mislead me into withdrawing too much into myself. I have gradually come to change my mind.

Later he looks back and describes that period as (page 216) ‘a few years which I can scarcely comprehend myself, when I was confused by religious ideas, by some kind of mysticism.’

His shift is initially related to his emotional attachment, at this point, to his cousin, Kee Vos. In the 1881 letter he explains to Theo (page 124):

It is my belief that the Jesuitisms of clergyman and devout ladies often make a greater impression on her then on me, Jesuitisms which, precisely because I have acquired some dessous de cartes [inside information], no longer have any hold on me now. But she is devoted to them and would be unable to bear it if the system of resignation and sin and God and I know not one else, proved to be vain.

Later still, in the light of his relationship in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, he is even more emphatic (page 279):

Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its founder was sublime – I have seen through present-day Christianity only too well. That icy coldness mesmerised even me in my youth – but I have taken my revenge since then . . . . by worshipping the love which they, the theologians, call sin, by respecting a whore, etc.

He still retained a belief in some form of transcendence though (page 124-25):

You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead as a door nail. But does that make me an atheist?… [I]f we are alive there is something wondrous about it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God.

Whatever he did believe seems to have some implications for an afterlife (page 153):

The world of takes no account at all of what happens beyond the grave. That is why the world goes no further than its feet will take it.

Tolstoy (for source of image see link)

Tolstoy (for source of image see link)

There is a key letter on religion written in September 1888. This is particularly intriguing for me as a Bahá’í because of the terms in which he describes what he believes, and because he is linking that to his reading of Tolstoy at the time, though it was of course much later that Tolstoy was interested enough to find out more about the Bábí and Bahá’í Faiths [4] (pages 406-09):

. . . it appears that Tolstoy is enormously interested in the religion of his people.… I believe there is a book on religion by Tolstoy… In it he goes in search, or so I gather from the article, of what remains eternally true in the Christian religion and what all religions have in common.

He admits to not having read the book yet himself but adds (ibid.):

I don’t imagine that his religion is a cruel one which increases our suffering, but must be, on the contrary, a very comforting one, inspiring one with peace of mind and energy, and the courage to live…

He goes onto write:

Tolstoy implies that whatever happens in a violent revolution, there will also be an inner revolution in the people, after which a new religion will be born, or rather, something completely new which will be nameless, but which will have the same effect of consoling, of making life possible, as the Christian religion used to.

This all relates to his idea of what art should be about (page 362):

I am still enchanted by snatches of the past, have a hankering after the eternal, of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols. But when shall I ever get around to doing the starry sky, that picture which is always in my mind?

Rembrandt was often his inspiration and model (page 377-78):

Anything complete and perfect renders infinity tangible . . . . . This is how Rembrandt painted angels. He does a self-portrait, old, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap, a picture from life, in a mirror. . . . . . So Rembrandt paints a supernatural angel with a da Vinci smile behind that old man who resembles himself.


In the end his calling as a painter, with all its hardships and its blessings, both hurt and healed him and left him doubtful about or feeling severed from God (page 394):

Ah, my dear brother, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can well do without God in both my life and also my painting, but, suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life – the power to create.

Patrick Brontë around 1860 (for source of image see link)

Patrick Brontë around 1860 (for source of image see link)

At the end of this prolonged encounter with Vincent van Gogh I was reminded of another family who had been similarly torn to pieces by a sequence of tragedies: the Brontës.

Six months after Vincent died, Theo was dead. Lies, his sister, had borne a child in secret, which she abandoned to a peasant family. His brother, Cor, shot himself in 1900, during a bout of fever in the Transvaal. Two years later, his sister Wil was committed to an asylum where she died forty years later. His mother saw most of this unfold until her death in 1907 (details from Van Gogh: The Life – page 867). Patrick Brontë, parish priest, had seen, by the age of 78, his wife, his son and all his five daughters die tragically young: three of those daughters are now famous novelists.

What is exceptional of course about these families is the genius of at least one member. Their tragedies, sadly, were more or less the norm for those days. That death was common meant that the need to decide what to do with your short life was vividly present. Only a favoured few had much choice in the matter.

In our prosperous Western civilisation, we all in the end have to make a decision about what our lives are for, and where the power to accomplish that comes from, and fortunately many more of us now than then have the power to enact that choice.

That’s why van Gogh’s life resonates so strongly still, both through his paintings and his letters. His struggle is our struggle, his defeats and triumphs ours as well. His inspiration, in spite of all his flaws and weaknesses, can hopefully raise us all to follow our calling and enhance our world in whatever way we can.

I hope this sequence of posts has done some kind of justice to the genius and compassion of this flawed but brilliant man and that I really was right not to confine the intensity of my thoughts to my diary, but rather tap away on my internet machine in the sunlight in celebration of his supremely creative life.

The Unexpected Maths behind van Gogh’s Starry Night


[1] A brief account of this view can be found in an article by Natalie Angier, published in the 12 December 1991 edition of the NY Times. There is also a detailed article by Wilfred Niels Arnold in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 2004, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 22–43 which can be downloaded in full from the website.

[2] This information is drawn from the Van Gogh gallery website.

[3] The link accesses the abstract only.

[4] See the link for more detail in the article from which the following quote is taken. ‘Tolstoi had encountered the Bábí movement as early as 1894 and maintained sporadic contact with Bahá’ís from 1901 until his death in 1910. Ghadirian has recounted Tolstoi’s vision of ideal religion, and his encounters with Bahá’ís, beginning with Isabel Grinevskaya and later ‘Aziz’ulláh Jazzah Khorasani, who was apparently despatched from `Akká by `Abdu’l-Bahá to speak to Tolstoi during a period of house arrest that followed his excommunication from the Orthodox church. Collins and Jasion, having recently reviewed 80 published sources on Tolstoi and the Bábí and Bahá’í religions, have cautioned that the novelist’s attitude to both religions was ambivalent, moving between the sympathies he expressed to Isabel Grinevskaya, and even to “Caucasian Mohammedans”, and others more negative. They suggest it is more appropriate to view the positive statements Tolstoi made on the Bahá’í Faith as testimony to some moments of perspicacity about the future of a religion which was at that time only beginning to make inroads in the West and undeveloped countries. `Abdu’l-Bahá notes that Tolstoi was a well-wisher of humanity but that he was still caught up in politics and opinion.’

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Glass table with book & VG

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

I’m picking up the threads again after the summer break. I don’t think I have ever republished a sequence so quickly, but tomorrow’s post will make it glaringly obvious why I have felt compelled to do so this time. This is the first of five posts: the second post will come out on Tuesday, and the others daily thereafter.

Getting a Feel for van Gogh

I am sitting in the sunlight at the dimpled glass garden table as I type. Its dappling effect seems to be clumsily mimicking the style of the man I am reflecting on right now. The white screen and shining metal of the laptop seem at odds with him and all he represented, all he most passionately believed in, and yet pounding on its keys is the closest I can get to an adequate response. Scribbling in my private diary didn’t seem enough.

IMG_2110I am almost twice the age at which he died, and have only fairly recently been conscious of my own death as something relatively close. As I sat on the flight to Amsterdam, I continued to read as much as I could of the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I was quite glad of the plane’s computer malfunction before take off as it gave me another 45 minutes’ reading time.

In August 1883 he wrote to his younger brother, Theo (page 228):

For no particular reason, I cannot help adding a thought that occurs to me. Not only did I start drawing relatively late in life, but it may well be that I shall not be able to count on many more years of life either.

Given the shorter life spans of the 19th Century it is perhaps not surprising that a man who had just turned 30 should already be thinking about his death. Given what we know now, what he goes on to say is perhaps more uniquely poignant (page 228-29):

So, as to the time I still have ahead of me for work, I think I may safely presume that my body will hold up for a certain number of years quand bien même [in spite of everything] – a certain number between 6 and 10, say. (I can assume this the more safely as there is for the time being no immediate quand bien même.)

He is setting the context of his painting within these sobering constraints, which proved all too close to the mark. In just under seven short years’ time he was dead of a gun shot wound. (We’ll be coming back to that event later.) Theo died six months later, aged 33.

At the time of writing the letter, he feels that (ibid.) ‘within a few years I must have done a certain amount of work – I don’t need to rush, for there is no point in that but I must carry on working in complete calm and serenity, as regularly and with as much concentration as possible, as much to the point as possible.’

The intensity with which he feels what he writes is indicated by the underlining, which is his. He explains why this is so important to him: ‘The world concerns me only in as far as I owe it a certain debt and duty, so to speak, because I have walked this earth for 30 years, and out of gratitude would like to leave some memento in the form of drawings and paintings – not made to please this school or that, but to express a genuine human feeling.’

I was reading these words to get a feeling for the man even before I stood in front of his paintings in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. And yet that is precisely what he seems to have wanted people to get from his paintings. He never meant to have his letters published. These were for the eyes of his brother, not the world.

The Myth, the Man and the Artist

My eventual experience in the museum, after queuing for two hours outside in an icy wind, illustrated allIMG_2113 too well how the myth gets in the way of the both the man and his art.

In the final room of the exhibition we caught up with a tour guide. She asked her group loudly, in front of his painting of the cornfield and the crows, ‘’How did van Gogh die?’

The predictable answer came back: ‘He shot himself.’

This same response I’d seen on the screen as we waited in the queue to come in. The same question – ‘How did van Gogh die? – flashed up with three answers to choose from (the wording may be slightly off as I didn’t write it down at the time):

  1. consumption;
  2. heart attack; or
  3. he shot himself in a cornfield.

After a few seconds the third answer darkened to indicate it was the correct one.

‘That’s right,’ the tour guide confidently responded: ‘He shot himself.’

‘No, he didn’t,’ my mind screamed back. ‘He was accidentally shot by a local lad.’ I’m not sure whether it was cowardice or consideration for her obviously pregnant and already stressed state that caused me to swallow my words.

‘This,’ she went on,’ pointing to the cornfield painting, ‘was his last picture.’

‘No, it wasn’t,’ shouted my head. ‘The last painting was of the tree roots.’ The passionate pedant in me was seething by this stage.

‘Why was he so poor, d’you think?’ she asked her enraptured audience.

Dissatisfied with the answers on offer she provided her solution. ‘He was the first artist ever to work outside the box, be completely original.’ The pedant in my head was reduced to the unprintable by this stage, though words such as Turner and Rembrandt amongst many others can be safely reproduced here. If the mould-breaking Impressionists had not made such an impression on him we’d have none of the late van Goghs.

As I moved away in mental melt down, hoping that no one would notice the steam coming out of my ears, I heard her say, ‘He only sold one painting in his entire life,’ and ‘No, he didn’t,’ exploded inside my brain.

VG book stackAs we explored the gift shop downstairs I saw on sale the very same book in which Naifeh and White Smith explain in detail their carefully researched evidence that calls into question the suicide myth (more detail in the next post). Doesn’t the museum read the books it sells?

My mind was also ringing with memories of a statement in the Letters, which I’d read in bed the previous evening indicating that he did make a few sales in his lifetime (page 168):

Van Gogh, about whom the myth persists that he sold just one work in his lifetime, received 20 guilders from his uncle C. M. in Prisenhage for a batch of drawings.

I had to admit though, when I had calmed down, that selling drawings to your uncle isn’t exactly making a breakthrough into the art market, no matter what de Leeuw, the editor of the letters, seems to think it is.

The simple blacks and whites of the myth are far more profitable of course than the muddled and muddied colours of his reality.

However, as I read my way through the account in his letters of his years of struggle with his art, I came to understand far more clearly what he felt he was about as an artist, and I believe that gave me a greater ability to experience the paintings as he meant me to than I would otherwise have had. It also kept the simplistic myths firmly at bay.

Inside his Mind

Let me unpack that a bit.

At one level my grasp of his intentions is pretty superficial. I was delighted to read (pages 311-12):

Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

I got a buzz out of seeing van Gogh use the same image as I have borrowed ever since from my reading of McGilchrist to convey basically the same idea: when we submit simply to left-brain machine mode without reference to the holistic and organic richness of the right-brain process we have sold our souls.

Van Gogh is also indicating that he is close to Myers’s territory as explored by the Kellys in Irreducible Mind. There is a transcendent dimension to consciousness, which we must take care not to betray. Rather we should use conscious control to help us access it. He refers to this kind of approach in various places (page 272):

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

His shift from religion to art as a vocation is perhaps partly explained by the strained relationships he had with his parents and their generation This split was forming even before his unwelcome passion for his cousin, which alienated his uncle, and his even more testing liaison in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, which torpedoed his links with his father, at least for the time being. In about 1879 his father had threatened to have him incarcerated in a mental institution in Gheel, and it was probably at this time that van Gogh changed from practising preacher to aspiring painter. He was seeking to break free of his cage (page 74):

I am caged, I am caged, and you say I need nothing, you idiots! I have everything I need, indeed! Oh, please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds.

His final religious disconnect was clearly with the church rather than with spirituality, and art for him would always seem to be a spiritual practice. Dogmatism, simplification and hypocrisy remained anathema to him.

This did not mean that his paintings would be abstract and ethereal. He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.

What maps his thinking even more closely onto the Myers perspective is his sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it, needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

Van Gogh also speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.

He did though see a value in suffering (page 285):

I can tell you that this year is bound to be very grim. But I keep thinking of what Millet said, ‘Je ne veux point supprimer la souffrance, car souvent c’est elle, qui fait s’exprimer le plus énergiquement les artistes.’ [‘I would never do away with suffering, for it is often what makes artists express themselves most forcefully.’

He also felt burdened at times by his work as an artist (page 355):

One knows one is a cab horse, and that one is going to be hitched up to the same old cab again – and that one would rather not, and would prefer to live in a meadow, with sunshine, a river, other horses for company free as oneself, and the act of procreation.

He trusted at the same time that the sacrifices would be worth it (ibid.):

There is an art of the future, and it will be so lovely and so young that even if we do give up our youth for it, we can only gain in serenity by it.

The next post will begin to examine in more detail both what van Gogh thought painting should be about, and also the issue of whether he died by his own hand or someone else’s.


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'The False Mirror' by René Magritte

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

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

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

Given how embroiled I am again in struggling to understand genius and creativity it made sense to throw these three posts at you once more! I’m posting them on consecutive days, from Thursday to Saturday. The first was really a bit of a stand alone but I’ve relocated as the first of three. This is the last.

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

Myers’s Psychology of Creative Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Yeats] came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s  general soul.

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

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

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

Myers is more cautious about Blake (page 445):

Footnote: Myers, like Bran (1991), regards Blake as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: “throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow” (Human Personality, vol 1, page 73).

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

'The Pleasure Principle' by René Magritte

‘The Pleasure Principle’ by René Magritte

Transpersonal Roots of Genius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolutionary Implications

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

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

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

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

It follows from his general theory that any procedures which encourage increased but controlled interaction with the subliminal can potentially move us in the desired direction. In addition to “active imagination” and creative work themselves, one thinks naturally in terms of cultivating phenomena such as ordinary dreams, lucid dreaming, and hypnagogia, which most persons can probably do.

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

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

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

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

A crucial caveat

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

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

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

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

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

‘Good for them,’ I say.

'The Ready-Made Bouquet' by René Magritte

‘The Ready-Made Bouquet’ by René Magritte

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Map of Consciousness
Given how embroiled I am again in struggling to understand genius and creativity it made sense to throw these three posts at you once more! I’m posting them on consecutive days, from Thursday to Saturday. The first is really a bit of a stand alone but I’ve relocated as the first of three.

Genius as the Norm

Given the butterfly nature of my brain it seemed best to approach the chapter on genius by Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso in Irreducible Mind from different angles. So this is one of a series of posts, each on an aspect of the topic.

Something that leapt out at me about the authors’ treatment of this theme was the idea that genius would eventually be the norm (page 476):

Myers portrays genius as the norm of the future, representing a condition of improved psychic integration. The genius thus stands for him among the vanguard of an evolutionary track which humanity as a whole is pursuing . .

Myers picks up on this idea in the context of the then contemporary and vexed debate about the exact relationship between ‘genius’ and ‘madness’ (page 426):

[Myers] . . . characterised hysteria as a disintegrative or “dissolutive” process involving loss of control of normally supraliminal elements of the personality. Genius for Myers presents the opposite situation. Specifically, in genius an increased “strength and concentration of the inward unifying control” results in enhanced coordination and integration of the supraliminal and subliminal phases of personality. . . . . Genius represents the evolution of personality toward a more ideal form of psychic functioning, and therefore toward a truer standard of “normality.”

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

The diagram at the head of this post is my latest attempt to capture the ‘subliminal stream’ pictorially in what is for me the counterintuitive  sense that, while we experience the material world vividly as though it were all that there is and it surrounds us completely, the opposite is possibly true: it is a tiny part of reality as a whole, and our perception of it is internally generated and adapted for our physical survival only, while our perception of that far greater transcendent reality seeps into our consciousness from below filtered through the funnel of our personal residue of subconscious material.

Myers’s final position is made very clear (page 471):

… genius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service and supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.

Irreducible Mind is unequivocal about the need for us to move further forward in our systematic investigation of the exact relationship between the two, and I may return to this topic at some point, but I need for now to look more deeply into the notion that everyone could potentially be a genius in future.

This isn’t the first time I’ve met this kind of idea of course.

Shoghi Effendi

For source of image see link

To begin with, for me at least, something like it is a core part of the Bahá’í concept of humanity’s future. Shoghi Effendi places this idea within the Bahá’í framework (World Order of Bahá’u’lláhpage 202):

The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood. Then will the human race reach that stature of ripeness which will enable it to acquire all the powers and capacities upon which its ultimate development must depend.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it crystal clear that we will develop new capacities as part of this process (Foundations of World Unity – page 9-10):

Man must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moralities, new capacities. New bounties, bestowals and perfections are awaiting and already descending upon him.

My memory tells me that Bahá’u’lláh wrote words to the effect that the child of the future will be as intelligent at the adult of now. Unfortunately I haven’t yet been able to trace that quote again. I’ll keep looking!

In addition, it is clear that evolutionary theory is beginning to address this issue as well. I have blogged about the work of Robert Wright before, after reading his fascinating book The Evolution of God. I was intrigued to find that Irreducible Mind also quotes him (page 602):

Commentator Robert Wright (1999)… while explicitly denying that evolution is directed specifically towards us – Homo sapiens – points out that the average complexity of species has in fact risen in general, driven by competitive pressures (“arms races”) within and between species, and that mammalian lineages in particular have tended toward increased “braininess.” Certain useful properties such as vision and flight have also been reinvented repeatedly during the course of evolution, and Wright explicitly proposes that similar built-in tendencies may exist with respect to higher order properties, such as intelligence, altruism, and love, that are of course central to Myers’s vision.

We are not just talking here about intellectual capacities but spiritual qualities also, though he may not quite go as far as I would like in accepting a transcendent realm.

How could this work?

This is where the chapter on genius becomes particularly fascinating (page 477):

Genius… effects fuller “cooperation of the submerged with the emergent self and in this way it expresses a nisus (striving or drive) to greater psychic integration or wholeness that Myers sees as a fundamental property of human nature

For source of image see link.

Carl Jung. For source of image see link.

The authors are well aware that others have struggled to articulate similar ideas, not least Carl Gustav Jung with his notion of individuation. However, they clearly feel that Myers’s model is the most satisfactory and is strongly linked to the concept of evolution (page 480:

[Myers wrote] “Man is in course of evolution,” . . . and “it may be in his power to hasten his own evolution in ways previously unknown.” . . . . It follows from his general theory that any procedures which encourage increased but controlled interaction with the subliminal can potentially move us in the desired direction.

What might some of those procedures be?

They give Jung his due when they quote his explanation of one strong possibility (page 481):

For Jung … art provides more than aesthetic pleasure; indeed, to the extent that we can imaginatively involve ourselves in a great work of art we vicariously participate in the transformative, integrative process effected by its creator, and are in some measure transformed and integrated ourselves. Some such “resonance” effect may account, for example, for John Stuart Mill’s famous declaration that he was healed by reading Wordsworth’s poetry . . .

In a later post I will be clarifying how the core aspect of this theory of genius could have positive evolutionary implications, but for now I’m simply going to look at one teasing but seminal possibility which intrigues me as someone always interested in literature.

The writers feel there is a link between this developmental and integrative effect and the power of imagination. This is by no means a straightforward issue.

It’s one that Nancy Evans Bush tackles in her book on distressing NDEs. Bush explains, in Dancing Past the Dark that (Kindle reference 2919) ‘NDEs cannot be the territory they represent: they are signposts, arrows; maps written in symbol.’

We have to be careful though to distinguish two different categories of thought when we are talking about symbols (2923):

What is imaginary does not really exist but is made up, pretend, fantasy. What is imaginal, on the other hand, as . . . . . Joseph Campbell . . . . noted, “is metaphysically grounded in a dreamlike mythological realm beyond space and time, which, since it is physically invisible, can be known only to the mind.”

Imagery therefore can potentially link our language dependent minds with that which reality places beyond the reach of speech. We can attempt to apprehend and convey aspects of the ineffable. The trap is that imagination can feed delusion rather than promote insight. This may in part be from where Myers’s derives his paradoxical perception of the influx from the subliminal which my diagram above hints at (page 430):

Not all such products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This sounds like Yeats’s ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart:’ the heart, though potentially contaminated by our reptilian self, is for me also potentially the experience of soul in consciousness, the place Yeats was combing for signs of the anima mundi. The introduction to Albright’s edition of Yeats’s poetry explains (page xxi):

[Yeats] came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.

This therefore does not mean that we should dismiss all imagery and symbol out of hand as hallucinatory even if we should be wary of it too (page 455):

Imagination [for Coleridge] is organic and active; it assimilates, dissolves and recreates, fuses, synthesises, and unifies. It transmutes the chaos of raw materials provided by everyday experience, forging and shaping them by means of its inherent . . “alembic” . . . powers into truly novel creations that balance or reconcile seemingly opposite or discordant qualities in harmonious unity. It is above all a unique form of thought, and one of the principal powers human mind.

Coleridge sees imagination, not to be confused with ‘fancy,’ as working at the root of all perception (Romanticism edited by Duncan Wu – page 525):

The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception . .

Bahá’í Scripture has similar views about the dual potential of the human imagination.

On the one hand Bahá’u’lláh warns us of the traps that await us when we abuse imagination (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 58):

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs. God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men.

On the other hand Bahá’í Scripture is also clear that imagination is a spiritual power (‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Some Answered Questionspages 201-11):

Man has . . . spiritual powers: imagination, which conceives things; thought, which reflects upon realities; comprehension, which comprehends realities; memory, which retains whatever man imagines, thinks and comprehends.

I am not sure whether imagination as such is included in the spiritual power that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is referring to in the following quotation. If it is it further reinforces Coleridge’s view of the imagination. If not, Myers’s view is still basically endorsed by Bahá’í Scripture in that both are describing some form of transcendent capacity in human beings to tune into dimensions of existence hidden from our basic senses (Some Answered Questionspage 186):

Though man has powers and outer senses in common with the animal, yet an extraordinary power exists in him of which the animal is bereft. The sciences, arts, inventions, trades and discoveries of realities are the results of this spiritual power. . . .  It even perceives things which do not exist outwardly—that is to say, intellectual realities which are not sensible, and which have no outward existence because they are invisible; so it comprehends the mind, the spirit, the qualities, the characters, the love and sorrow of man, which are intellectual realities. Moreover, these existing sciences, arts, laws and endless inventions of man at one time were invisible, mysterious and hidden secrets; it is only the all-encompassing human power which has discovered and brought them out from the plane of the invisible to the plane of the visible.

What is even more exciting for me about this passage is that it seems to me to be endorsing what Myers is also arguing for: that art, and science too for that matter, progress largely by way of a process of inspiration from a subliminal realm, and that art is therefore potentially an instrument for personal and societal development and transformation – a key component of the process by which we are evolving towards our full potential.

Gerard Manley Hopkins. For source of image see link.

Gerard Manley Hopkins. For source of image see link.

There are many who would attempt to deny this and argue that great works of art, as well as scientific discovery, are purely the result of diligence augmented by automatic brain processes. I will be returning to this in more detail in a later post, but for now will limit myself to a quote from a republished book I recently purchased on the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Robert Bernard Martin (page 70):

[Hopkins] attempts to distinguish between the “first and highest” form of “poetry proper, the language of inspiration,” and that written by great poets when inspiration has failed them although their habitual level of high competence remains.

For the young Hopkins diligence was not enough to produce a true poem. Another ingredient was necessary, one that the modern mind would like to explain completely in terms of material processes but which Myers and William James, as we have seen in earlier posts, described as demanding a transcendental explanation. We will come back to that again soon in the context of genius and subliminal inspiration.


I am aware that the logic of this explanation may have been a touch hard to follow as I am to some degree working things out as I go, so a summary might help.

I believe the thinking that this post quotes is suggesting that humanity is evolving in a potentially dramatic way. The prediction is that our level of functioning will massively increase intellectually, creatively and spiritually.

This process is not purely a material one. In fact, in terms of its most important fruits, it is a spiritual one drawing on powers and insights from a transcendent realm of which most of us are for now only subliminally aware at best. The process triggers breakthroughs in both arts and sciences whose agents are described as geniuses.

The way both groups of geniuses, artist and scientist alike, access the subliminal stream that carries the necessary insights is seen by some to be assisted by the imagination, at least partly through the power of image and symbol. Exposure to products of artistic genius helps us enhance our powers and achieve higher levels of personal integration. Ultimately most of us will also be able to function at genius level when our civilisation peaks, if we do not destroy ourselves first, for we will then be able to draw inspiration from the same subliminal stream that genius accesses now.

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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)

Given my problematic revisiting of creativity in the context of schizophrenia, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses more positively on the power of art.

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.


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.


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!


[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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