Posts Tagged ‘FWH Myers’


In the last post, I reached a point where I felt that a different angle on the issue of transliminality was required.

Irreducible MindFrom Irreducible Mind 

This is where revisiting Irreducible Mind might pay off, even though it does not deal with psychosis as such.

So, here I go back to the Kellys, Myers and James. The core relevant material is between pages 606-39 in Irreducible Mind.

They distance themselves from the idea of a brain that faithfully transmits information from the subliminal to the supraliminal:

The related term ‘filter,’ which is like Aldous Huxley’s ‘reducing valve,’ suggests selection, narrowing, and loss, is much more appropriate to that relationship, and for that reason we greatly prefer it as a shorthand description of Myers’s theory.

So far so good.

They note this metaphor has since been updated to that of the brain as ‘a TV receiver.’ (Incidentally, Pim van Lommel’s analogy of the transceiver is more appropriate, and the computer analogy more appropriate still, in that the latter allows for the brain generating as well as transmitting and receiving a great deal of data both consciously and unconsciously: not that I accept in any other respect the idea that either the mind or the brain is a computer in the way it functions.)

The Kellys rightly warn us to be cautious before attributing too many high level functions to this capacity. I am also treading warily from now on as I am really not convinced that we can risk conflating creative subliminal uprush from within the brain with extrasensory stimuli from a transpersonal or transcendent dimension, though I am not ruling out the possibility that such experiences might first be registered subconsciously for later transfer to consciousness.

Anyhow let’s see where Edward Kelly, the author of this chapter, is going to take us.

It is at this point in his explanation that it becomes clear that Kelly is arguing from a perspective of mind-brain independence:

More generally, we wish now to argue that by thinking of the brain as an organ which somehow constrains, regulates, restricts, limits, and enables or permits expression of the mind in its full generality, we can obtain an account of mind-brain relations which potentially reconciles Myers’s theory of the Subliminal Self with the observed correlations between mind and brain, while circumventing the conceptual difficulties identified above in transmission models.

He then moves on to considering both dualist and monist theories of mind. Although evidence was marshalled early on that might seem to support the simple dualist position that the mind is separate from and to some degree independent of the body, he feels it was ‘insufficient to establish it, since alternative explanations based on the conventional viewpoint were nowhere decisively excluded.’

Sperry, he explains, opted for an ‘emergent property’ explanation, arguing that ‘mind and consciousness “emerge” from brain processes when these processes reach a certain threshold of complexity.’ The problem was that Perry stated this without accounting for how it might come about.

He then points out that thinking has shifted to increased acceptance of the possibility, entertained by Myers, that there may not be ‘any sharply defined distinction of mind and matter.’ This weakens the argument, used by critics against simple dualism, that if mind were so different from matter it could not affect it. It becomes easier and more plausible to entertain that possibility that if a brain can affect a mind the opposite could also be true.

This leads him to shift his argument to a consideration of the impact of quantum physics on our ideas about the relationship between consciousness and matter. This is a controversial area about which I am not competent to adjudicate. He ends by quoting Stapp as saying, ‘Contemporary physical theory allows, and in its orthodox von Neumann form entails, an interactive dualism.’ Though he accepts that much more work needs to be done to articulate and support this model he still contends:

The model also potentially explains in a natural way certain of the characteristic features of conscious experience, such as the attentional ‘bottleneck’ of Pashler… and the properties of the ‘global workspace’ as conceived by many contemporary brain theorists – broadly, the fact that a serial, integrated, and very limited stream of consciousness somehow emerges in association with a nervous system that is distributed, massively parallel, and of huge capacity.

He is keen to find ways of undermining the assumption that the brain produces experience rather than transmits or permits it. He is encouraged by findings from neuroimaging that suggest that far from the brain operating exclusively in a modular way, it seems rather to function as a ‘global workspace.’ He sees this as supporting the idea of the brain as ‘an instrument adapted by evolution to enable the mind to gain information about, and to act upon, the everyday physical environment.’ He argues we are moving towards a picture of the mind as residing ‘in the associated psychic entity, which is at least in part outside the brain as conventionally conceived.’

We will be returning to this in more detail in the next post. It is perhaps worth flagging up that Mario Beauregard, in a chapter in Exploring the Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship, offers a mind-brain interaction model of his own design (page 133):

In line with [William] James’s view, I recently proposed the Psychoneural Translation Hypothesis (or PTH) . . . . This hypothesis posits that the mind (the psychological world, the first-person perspective) and the brain (which is part of the ‘physical’ world, the third-person perspective) represent two epistemologically and ontologically distinct domains that can interact because they are complementary aspects of the same underlying reality. . . . [M]entalese (the language of the mind) is translated into neuronese (the language of the brain). This . . . . allows mental processes to causally influence brain activity in a very precise manner.

This all is hopefully indicating that we might have a mind which is not completely reducible to the brain.

We still have a very long way to go though:

The traditional dualist problems regarding mental causation and energy conservation seem to be overcome, but there remain further deep problems with no good solutions in sight. We still have no real understanding of the ultimate nature of the relationship between brain processes and mental activity, and certainly no solution of Chalmers’s ‘hard problem’ – why conscious experiences with their specific qualitative characteristics should arise at all in connection with the associated patterns of brain activity. It is not clear which aspects of the ‘cognitive unconscious’ go with the brain, which with the associated psyche, and how their respective contributions get co-ordinated.


This last question exactly matches the problem highlighted in the earlier diagram.

He turns to monist possibilities for further possible enlightenment. Hard questions are raised about the nature of matter:

In our attempt to develop the non-Cartesian dualist-interactionist model we relied heavily on a first major consequence of quantum theory, that it brings consciousness back into physics at the foundational level and in a causally effective manner. There is a second major consequence, however, no less profound but even less widely appreciated. It is this: there is no such thing as matter as classically conceived.

He quotes Stapp again:

The new conception essentially fulfils the age-old philosophical idea that nature should be made out of a kind of stuff that combines in an integrated and natural way certain mind-like and matter-like qualities, without being reduced to either classically conceived mind or classically conceived matter.

He goes back to Whitehead’s thinking (1938):

Whitehead’s fundamental move is… to re-situate mind in matter as the fundamental factor by which determinate events emerge out of the background of possibilities.

He also argues for ‘a global interconnectedness that is fundamental to nature’ and adds in a footnote: ‘How far down nature can plausibly be viewed as manifesting such “mentalistic” properties remains an open question, but the threshold, if one exists, is undoubtedly much further down than most of us commonly assume.’

Kelly suggests that Whitehead’s ‘original philosophical system is being progressively “modernised” in light of continuing developments in physics,’ while acknowledging it is anything but problem-free.

From a spiritual point of view I know where I want the evidence to point.

The Conscious Universe IRMA very delicate balance

I am heartened but not completely satisfied that there are bodies of carefully gathered evidence that confirm the idea that there is a transcendent dimension which is not reducible to matter. I am aware that the strongest evidence there is points to the reality of psi, at least. Dean Radin’s book, The Conscious Universe, marshalls it compellingly, as I have already explored on this blog.

His response to ill-informed scepticism is worth quoting once more. He quotes Paul Churchland as a not untypical example (page 207):

‘… There is not a single parapsychological effect that can be repeatedly or reliably produced in any laboratory suitably equipped to perform and control the experiment. Not one.’

Radin’s reposte, which his book proves is completely warranted is (ibid.):

Wrong. As we’ve seen, there are a half dozen psi effects that have been replicated dozens to hundreds of times in laboratories around the world.

Radin goes onto explain that such sceptics as Churchland have not even bothered to find out what the tiny handful of well-informed sceptics had come to accept (page 209):

Today, informed sceptics no longer claim that the outcomes of psi experiments are due to mere chance because we know that some parapsychological effects are, to use sceptical psychologist Ray Hyman’s words, “astronomically significant.” This is a key concession because it shifts the focus of the debate away from the mere existence of interesting effects to their proper interpretation.

Mario Beauregard endorses this view in his book The Spiritual Brain.

He ends up on Alvin Plantinga’s ground at one point (Kindle Reference: 2520):

We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists…who often confuse their religion with their science.

He refers in summary to the areas of exploration he has adduced which he feels a nonmaterialist view can explain more adequately, and includes the research on psi (2528):

For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.

And these near-death experiences are more controversial than psi, if that is possible, as we will see next time.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Transliminality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens

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

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

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

(Shelley from the Preface to The Cenci)

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

Where do I stand in all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our garden meadow

Schematic Presentation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dissolute Artist Problem

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

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

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

Two Key Issues

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

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions concerning the Model

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

One Size will not Fit All

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

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

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

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

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

Or of lighting its candle as in:

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

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

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

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


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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… the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may be assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tulman in Mirror of the Divine page 118)

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post brings the focus back on Shelley for the penultimate time. It seems to justify my strong sense that I need to go back to this material to see what light can be shed by my current better understanding of the effects of trauma.

The last two posts tackled first the question of what makes a poem before looking at various models of creativity. Now I want to take a closer look at Shelley.

Key Issues

Perhaps the first thing to do is summarise what seem to be the key issues for Shelley’s career as a poet specifically before closing in on three of his poems.

First of all there are a number of contradictory elements that almost certainly led to significant inner conflict:

  1. Almost everyone would agree that Shelley’s character had serious flaws, not least his tendency to violence, his lack of empathy and his casual disregard for the debts he owed to people who could ill-afford to incur them. A telling late example of his oblivion to other people’s legitimate concerns comes in Ann Wroe’s account of a boating incident where he took Jane Williams, a close companion, and her two babies, out on the water in a coracle (page 177-78). He was plainly pre-occupied with death as he gazed interminably into the water. Jane did her best to distract him, but when, in the end, he said he could easily discover the meaning of death by rocking the coracle, Jane had the presence of mind to say, ‘No, thank you; not now. I should like my dinner first, and so would the children.’ When they got back safely on land, ‘Shelley seemed unaware that he had said, or done, anything remotely strange.’ The sad irony is that his final possible acts of recklessness in his boat killed not only Shelley himself but also her husband.
  2. He also had great positive qualities, not least the courage to publicise his idealistic vision of society at a time when to do so was extremely dangerous, even for someone of his privileged background. His attitude towards authority had its roots both in his later fractious relationship with his father, but possibly earlier in what seems to have been his insensitive, even brutal treatment at the hands of most of his teachers.
  3. In his personal life he was both victim, for example of bullying at school, and victimizer, for instance in his treatment of Miss Hitchener and his first wife, Harriet.
  4. In his work he wrestled both with forging a language to describe the mind as well as using language to raise political awareness. I don’t think it’s forcing the issue to suppose that he saw fruitful parallels between what he experienced within his mind and what he saw happening in society around him.

Holmes (page 5): ‘All his life, Shelley was to detest violence and the various forms of ‘tyranny’ which it produced. Yet the exceptional violence in his own character, the viciousness with which he reacted to opposition, was something he found difficult to accept about himself.’

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

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile.

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

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

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

Claire Clairmont, to whom Shelley was closer than to anyone else in the world at that point, wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

It seems highly likely that the conflicts, by the discomfort of the dissonance they created, pushed him to resolve them, if he could, through poetry. Previous posts have looked at suffering and inner conflict as drivers of development to higher levels of consciousness. It seems likely that a poet would use poetry to help this process. This, in Shelley’s case, was further facilitated by certain external triggers that were not necessarily stressful.

There is also, of course, the separate issue of his temperament, which provided the unstable context for all those conflicts. He was clearly excitable, even at times hysterical, which may have had something to do with his reckless impetuosity. In one single page (169) of her account, Ann Wroe uses the following words to describe him: ‘imperious,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘impetuous,’ and ‘self-willed.’ This perhaps goes some way to explain his rapid shifts of commitment to people as well as to ideas. His intense involvement with today’s soul mate, which drew people to him and caused them to forge strong attachments, could change almost overnight to indifference or even outright rejection. He left a lot of emotional damage in his wake, even though his avowed intention was to harm no one.

This relates to the caveat that FWH Myer’s had about the poetry of Blake (Irreducible Mind: page 445):

Myers. . . . . 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).

According to Holmes, Shelley’s emphasis on love is marred by two very major blemishes (page 207-08):

The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations… His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship

What he learnt from observing his impact on others may eventually have helped him mellow the initially extreme impatience of his political perspective.

For example (page 288):

In the effort to face his certain aspects of himself, his attempts and failures to set up constant and happy relations with those around him, he made a breakthrough into a new kind of reflective writing.

He was also passionately curious about many different areas of human concern, from poetry through psychology and science to philosophy and the translation of classics such as Plato’s Symposium. This seemed to be feeding the subliminal processes connected with his art. [It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.]

In terms of what was at the time the controversial issue of his atheism, perhaps the closest we can get is the description of his beliefs in Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu (page 820):

In truth, Percy’s attitude to God was more complex than the word ‘atheist’ suggests. It is not surprising that the concept was inimical to someone so opposed to an established church not merely complicit, but deeply implicated, in the social and political oppression prevalent in England at the time. On the other hand, he was tremendously attracted to the pantheist life force of Tintern Abbey, and could not resist pleading the existence of a similar power in his poetry. However, he stopped well short of believing in a benevolent deity capable of intervening in human affairs.

In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’

Shelley’s own prose comment is illuminating (page 639), Epipsychidion:

. . . . is an idealised history of my life and feelings. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood avoid it, consists in seeking an immortal image and likeness of what is perhaps eternal.

My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that emotionally he believed he was connected to what felt like transcendent forces: intellectually he couldn’t allow himself to entertain the idea that these forces had anything to do with the God his contemporaries believed in.

Similar to Sir Philip Sidney, he continues to see (Holmes – page 642) ‘the function of poetry as a moral and political one, rather than as a purely literary one,’ and defines the moral function of poetry as (page 643) putting ‘himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He sees poetry as strengthening that function.

Interestingly, when it came to Shelley’s reaction to the death of Keats in Italy from consumption, his ability to empathise with the reality of Keats’s situation was deeply flawed (page 648):

It is transparent . . . that Shelley was not thinking in any realistic way about Keats’s reaction to any review of 1818, but rather of his own reaction to the quarterly attack on himself in 1819.

What I also need to mention is that, in my view, apart from a significant number of relatively short lyrics, his greatest poetry can only be found in a very small number of his longer more ambitious works. That is why the focus of my consideration of his poetry will be on trying to detect what combination of factors came together to create his masterpieces. I am going to assume that the uneven, or even poor quality of his other long poems needs no explanation except that the necessary combination of truly creative factors was absent or at best intermittent and/or that the necessary control of subliminal material was also missing. I have already indicated that I would be avoiding the dramatic poetry and focusing on shorter more lyrical pieces.

Holmes ShelleyShelley’s Poems

For present purposes it seems to me that there are three poems of Shelley’s that probably fall within the criteria I’ve set for great lyric poetry and lie within my competence to assess. They also offer contrasting possibilities in terms of the sources of their inspiration and their relationship to Shelley’s preoccupations.

I recognise that I have made this decision relatively quickly and largely on the basis of secondary sources. I haven’t done what both Holmes and Wroe have clearly done, which is saturated themselves for a long period of time, not just in Shelley’s poetry, but also in all his available notebooks, letters and formal prose. However, I am intending this to be the start of a journey and if I waited until I’ve had time to read all that, assuming I was interested enough in Shelley in his own right to complete such a mammoth task, the first step would probably never be taken.

So, I’m going to blast on anyway. Let’s see if it all stands up to closer inspection. I have the impression, possibly the illusion that I’m heading in the right direction.

I need to look at each of these poems in turn, first in terms of their quality (i.e. musicality, significance, ambition and solving for the unknown) before looking at them in terms of their process of inspiration.

Julian and Maddalo – the Music

First of all, does the music of this poem match its meaning?

I feel there is no doubt that Shelley’s command of music in Julian and Maddalo has greatly advanced:

This ride was my delight. I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be;
And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
More barren than its billows; and yet more
Than all, with a remembered friend I love                         20
To ride as then I rode;–for the winds drove
The living spray along the sunny air
Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare,
Stripped to their depths by the awakening north;
And from the waves sound like delight broke forth
Harmonizing with solitude, and sent
Into our hearts aërial merriment.

He plays with full and half-rhymes. The language for the most part is simple and direct, but changes syllabic groupings with a lightness of touch and delicate shifts of mood: ‘I love all waste’ with its monosyllables and teasing line break (why would he love waste, for heaven’s sake?) shifts into ‘And solitary places.’ This builds up by the long sounds of ‘waste,’ ‘taste’ and ‘see’ (the latter with its reminder of ‘sea’) to a sense of the ‘boundless,’ which then triggers the brilliant leap into the transcendent desire of ‘as we wish our souls to be.’ I won’t bore you with more probably unnecessary commentary.

He sustains this level for almost all the poem, weaknesses such as ‘aërial merriment’ remaining relatively rare, but perhaps not quite rare enough.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

We get a sense from very early on that this poem is not going to be a superficial or trivial one:

Of all that earth has been, or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint, or suffering may achieve,
We descanted; and I (for ever still
Is it not wise to make the best of ill?)
Argued against despondency, but pride
Made my companion take the darker side.
The sense that he was greater than his kind                       50
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
By gazing on its own exceeding light.

I accept that simply stating that they talked about almost everything of any importance may be no more than an ironic boast, but there are hints that the intention is not only serious, but that we are also in the hands of a poet who could potentially deliver. The astute analysis of the companion’s character and the sardonic tone here, that we know Shelley was able to command and sustain powerfully over the 14 lines of the sonnet Ozymandias, should give us hope that he can hold this level for longer.

Does the poem aspire to lift my consciousness, help me solve for the unknown?

The next development of the poem suggests that the issue of deciding what to believe is at the core of the poem, and is therefore a theme that could potentially be intimately related to lifting levels of consciousness as high as possible:

                                         . . . .  said Maddalo;
‘You talk Utopia.’ ‘It remains to know,’
I then rejoined, ‘and those who try may find                     180
How strong the chains are which our spirit bind;
Brittle perchance as straw. We are assured
Much may be conquered, much may be endured
Of what degrades and crushes us. We know
That we have power over ourselves to do
And suffer–what, we know not till we try;
. . . . . . .                   190
‘My dear friend,’
Said Maddalo, ‘my judgment will not bend
To your opinion, though I think you might
Make such a system refutation-tight
As far as words go. I knew one like you,
Who to this city came some months ago,
With whom I argued in this sort, and he
Is now gone mad,– . . . . .’

The interest of the poem does not stop there. It contains, for example, ideas concerning the nature of the soil of experience from which poetry springs (Holmes – page 456):

Maddalo recalls the power of [the Maniac’s] language, . . . . .

And I remember one remark which then
Maddalo made. He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

Holmes (page 457) feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement.

Through the Maniac’s monologue, the poem questions what many of us also question, the reason for our suffering:

‘What Power delights to torture us? I know                       320
That to myself I do not wholly owe
What now I suffer, though in part I may.
Alas! none strewed sweet flowers upon the way
Where, wandering heedlessly, I met pale Pain,
My shadow, which will leave me not again.
If I have erred, there was no joy in error,
But pain and insult and unrest and terror;
I have not, as some do, bought penitence
With pleasure, and a dark yet sweet offence . . .

I accept that the abstractions Shelley litters across the last lines – ‘error,’ ‘insult and unrest and terror’ – weaken the force of the passage. He has still not shaken off this habit of straining into the abstract for effect. But he is certainly beginning to master his medium.

He is also probing, at the personal level here, issues that have relevance to society as a whole and the politics that plays out at that level:

As some perverted beings think to find
In scorn or hate a medicine for the mind
Which scorn or hate have wounded–oh, how vain!
The dagger heals not, but may rend again!

He goes on to plead that they do not believe:

. . . . . that I will join the vulgar cry;
Or with my silence sanction tyranny;
Or seek a moment’s shelter from my pain
In any madness which the world calls gain,
Ambition or revenge or thoughts as stern
As those which make me what I am; or turn
To avarice or misanthropy or lust.

Shelley is clearly using a story of personal pain to make a political point. This poem for me represents a blend of the personal/psychological and the political, making it therefore an ambitious enterprise – perhaps too ambitious, hence its failure to deliver consistently on its intentions. It helps us see perhaps from where the power of the other two poems I’m going to look at partly derives: The Mask of Anarchy is focused exclusively on the politics while Ode to the West Wind sticks with the personal.

This blend or fusion continues even as the Maniac rants against his fate at the hands of the woman he loved:

But me, whose heart a stranger’s tear might wear
As water-drops the sandy fountain-stone,
Who loved and pitied all things, and could moan
For woes which others hear not, and could see
The absent with the glance of fantasy,
And with the poor and trampled sit and weep,
Following the captive to his dungeon deep;
Me–who am as a nerve o’er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of this earth,                      450
And was to thee the flame upon thy hearth,
When all beside was cold:–that thou on me
Shouldst rain these plagues of blistering agony!

I sense that we see here exactly how the character of the Maniac in this poem speaks for Shelley’s own self-dramatising perspective on the world, where he is the victimised but noble ally of the oppressed. This perspective has power in its compassion for the wretched and is deeply flawed in its self-pity. This seems to me the Shelley problem, from which I can never quite escape when I read most of his poetry. It is rooted in his early experiences, as we saw when we looked at his life.

I think, then, that this poem, in its intentions at least and probably in its achievement just about matches the criteria set for what we are terming a ‘great’ poem. To be fair, I have to acknowledge that Duncan Wu’s 1000-page anthology of romantic poetry does not include even a mention of this poem, let alone a quotation from it. He clearly does not number it among Shelley’s greatest achievements. I accept that it has its flaws, the main one for me being the overlong ‘Maniac’s’ monologue.

Let’s see how far I can get exploring the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

So what triggered it?

In Julian and Maddalo the inspiration is largely derived from social interaction.

It was in Venice in 1819, as a result of Shelley’s deepening relationship with Lord Byron, that Holmes feels we begin to see appearing what was ‘the first of Shelley’s masterpieces’ (page 449): Julian and Maddalo.

This close friendship with Byron, who would seem to have probed the weaknesses of Shelley’s philosophy of life in a way that Shelley could not ignore because of his admiration for Byron as a poet, had apparently triggered something of a crisis in him and fired up the need to find a way of asserting his sense of reality but from behind the protection of a mask.

What I am not completely sure of is whether he is simply seeking to justify his position or whether he has been spurred to explore it. My money is on his having felt stung to defend his worldview. The poem would have been greater had he been able to rise to the challenge of exploring it.

The poem, via Maddalo’s comment on the Maniac, also suggests that the pain Shelley was suffering in his personal life at the time had also played its part in the generation of the poem. This might explain why the suffering of the Maniac is so central a theme and why Shelley at this point is unable to place it in perspective. We have only his word that he is more sinned against than sinning, and we are expected to accept his values on trust as right and noble.

I have come to the conclusion that in this poem we are not seeing ‘subliminal uprush’ at its deepest and best. This is rather eloquence fuelled by a personal feeling state and not much more. Shelley has not broken through to a new level of consciousness, he has merely been spurred to find a new vehicle through which to express his conscious convictions and self-justifications. Therefore, it follows, that we as readers will tend to remain undisturbed by it within our own existing frames of reference. No ‘solving for the unknown’ then.

This is very different from the situation we encounter in the next two poems, I think, which I will look at next Monday.

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In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with last Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post, like the last one, constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake.

N.B. now we’re back on track after the two posts out of sequence! To read 5a now see link.

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] 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 suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that in the next post.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

As I have brought Shelley back into the frame with yesterday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! There are examples of trauma in his life at the point I take it up, that I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning. This phase in the sequence also looks at some general principles that may be relevant to creativity in general as well as Shelley in particular.

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!


Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] 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 suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (page 21):

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

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

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

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

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

For insights shed on this from the trauma literature see my earlier see the three immediately preceding posts accessible from the links at the start of this post..

The really difficult bit starts with the next post tomorrow – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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What is the dust which obscures the mirror? It is attachment to the world, avarice, envy, love of luxury and comfort, haughtiness and self-desire; this is the dust which prevents reflection of the rays of the Sun of Reality in the mirror. The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244)


Because my current sequence of posts refers to the Kellys and their thought-provoking text Irreducible Mind, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence from March 2013. This is the last of the three parts.

In the previous two posts I’ve been moaning about how I was robbed when my training in psychology steered me away from the work of thinkers such as FWH Myers as though they had the plague. What I probably need to do to redress the balance is mention how much I was influenced by thinkers who were deeply influenced by Myers. In one case I know that for certain because I still have Roberto Assagioli‘s introductory text on psychosynthesis, which I read in 1976 and which cites Myers in the list of references at the end of Chapter I. Another was a seminal book I borrowed but never bought, so it is impossible to say whether the influence was direct and acknowledged: this was Peter Koestenbaum’s New Images of the Person.

Assagioli explained in his book the importance of what he calls a ‘disidentification exercise’ (page 22):

After having discovered [various elements of our personality], we have to take possession of them and acquire control over them. The most effective method by which we can achieve this is that of disidentification. This is based on a fundamental psychological principle which may be formulated as follows:

We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves.

(For the psychosynthesis disidentification exercise see the following link.)

Then, in another exciting moment, I came upon Koestenbaum’s ideas about reflection six years after I had read Assagioli. Reflection is the ‘capacity to separate consciousness from its contents’ (Koestenbaum: 1979). We can step back, inspect and think about our experiences. We become capable of changing our relationship with them and altering their meanings for us. It is like a mirror learning to see that it is not the same as what is reflected in it. So here was a writer in the existentialist tradition speaking in almost the same terms as psychosynthesis. I had practised Assagioli’s exercise for a long period after reading his book. Now I was triggered into resuming the practice again by what Koestenbaum had written.

I came across Koestenbaum’s book just before I discovered the existence of the Bahá’í Faith (for a fuller account see link). It helped me take what I had found in Assagioli and fuse it with what I had found in the Faith and create an experiential exercise to express that understanding in action in a way that helped me immensely to adjust to spiritual concepts which until that point had been completely alien to me for decades – all my adult life in fact. The Baha’i Writings talk about certain key powers of the soul: loving, knowing and willing as well as introducing me to the idea of the heart, the core of our being, as a mirror. I pulled this into my version of the exercise (see below). What I didn’t realise until later was that Assagioli had corresponded with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and had therefore to some degree been influenced by Bahá’í thought. (See Disidentification exercise for the final version that I used myself rather than this one I revised to share for the use of others).

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

How amazing then to find Emily Kelly, in the book Irreducible Mind, quoting Myers quoting Thomas Reid, an 18th century philosopher (page 74):

The conviction which every man has of his identity . . . needs no aid of philosophy to strengthen it; and no philosophy can weaken it.… I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment…; But that Self or I, to which they belong, is permanent…

What I regret therefore now is that the usefulness of this exercise did not make me trace it back to its source and find out more of what Myers thought about this and many other things of great importance to me. So, better late than never, that is what I am about to do now.

Myers’s the self and the Self

The disidentification exercise rattled the cage of my previous ideas about who I was in essence. While I didn’t quite buy into Assagioli’s other ideas about consciousness at that time I felt, both intuitively and from the experiences I was having, that his idea was completely right that there is some form of pure consciousness underpinning our identity.

So, as good a place as any to pick up the thread of Myers’s thinking again is with his ideas of the self and the Self. There are some problems to grapple with before we can move on. Emily Kelly writes (page 83):

These ‘concepts central to his theory’ are undoubtedly difficult, but despite some inconsistency in his usage or spelling Myers was quite clear in his intent to distinguish between a subliminal ‘self’ (a personality alternate or in addition to the normal waking one) and a Subliminal ‘Self’ or ‘Individuality’ (which is his real ‘unifying theoretical principle’). In this book we will try to keep this distinction clear in our readers minds by using the term ‘subliminal consciousness’ to refer to any conscious psychological processes occurring outside ordinary awareness; the term “subliminal self” (lower case) to refer to ‘any chain of memory sufficiently continuous, and embracing sufficient particulars, to acquire what is popularly called a “character” of its own;’ and the term ‘Individuality’ or “’Subliminal Self” (upper case) to refer to the underlying larger Self.

Myers believed that the evidence in favour of supraliminal experiences, used here by me in the sense of things that leak through the membrane from above, is strong enough to warrant serious consideration and he distinguishes between that and subliminal experiences that come, as it were, from underneath (page 87):

Supernormal processes such as telepathy do seem to occur more frequently while either the recipient or the agent (or both) is asleep, in the states between sleeping and waking, in a state of ill health, or dying; and subliminal functioning in general emerges more readily during altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, hysteria, or even ordinary distraction.

He felt that we needed to find some way of reliably tapping into these levels of consciousness (page 91)

The primary methodological challenge to psychology, therefore, lies in developing methods, or ‘artifices,’ for extending observations of the contents or capacities of mind beyond the visible portion of the psychological spectrum, just as the physical sciences have developed artificial means of extending sensory perception beyond ordinary limits.


Midsummer Night’s Dream

Thin Partitions

He also has much that is interesting and valuable to say about the implications of a proper understanding of these upper and lower thresholds, especially when they are too porous, for both genius and mental health (page 98):

When there is ‘a lack of liminal stability, an excessive permeability, if I may say so, of the psychical diaphragm that separates the empirical [conscious] from the latent [subliminal: unconscious] faculties and man,’ then there may be either an expansion of consciousness (an ‘uprush’ of latent material from the subliminal into the supraliminal) or, conversely, a narrowing of consciousness (a ‘downdraught’ from the supraliminal into the subliminal). The former is genius, the latter is hysteria.

His use of supra- and subliminal is slightly confusing here but the main point is that genius expands what we are aware of, and more comes above the threshold, whereas hysteria narrows our experience so that less comes into consciousness. This is partly clarified by Kelly explaining (page 99):

In short, Myers believed that hysteria, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon, gives ‘striking’ support to ‘my own principal thesis’, namely, that all personality is a filtering or narrowing of the field of consciousness from a larger Self, the rest of which remains latent and capable of emerging only under the appropriate conditions.

Even the expanded consciousness of genius, in this view, is still filtering a lot out – in fact, it still leaves most of potential consciousness untapped.

There is in addition a common quality of excessive porousness which explains why, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the ‘lunatic . . . . . and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ Myers’s view is that (page 100):

Because genius and madness both involve similar psychological mechanisms – namely, a permeability of the psychological boundary – it is to be expected that they might frequently occur in the same person; but any nervous disorders that accompany genius signal, not dissolution, but a ‘perturbation which masks evolution.’

For Myers dreams, though they may indeed be common and frequently discounted, they are nonetheless important sources of data (pages 102-103):

Myers argued [that] dreams provide a readily available means of studying the ‘language’ of the subliminal, a language that may underlie other, less common forms of automatism or subliminal processes. . . . Myers’s model of mind predicts that that if sleep is a state of consciousness in which subliminal processes take over from supraliminal ones, then sleep should facilitate subliminal functioning, not only in the organic or ‘infrared’ region, but also in the “ultraviolet” range of the psychological spectrum, such as the emergence of telepathic impressions in dreams.

This has certainly been my own experience. A post I wrote two years ago will perhaps serve to illustrate that for those who are interested. My dream of the hearth, recounted there, was, incidentally, the only dream I have ever had in which I experienced the presence of God, another reason for my attaching such great importance to it.

An important related topic he also addresses is that of ‘hallucinations.’ People tend to be quite closed minded on this topic, seeing visions and voices as the sign of a mind gone wrong. This is quite unhelpful. There is a mass of evidence that I may come back to some time to indicate that ‘hallucinations’ range from the darkly destructive to the life enhancing and it important to pay close attention to the details of them and the circumstances under which they occur before coming to any conclusion about them. Our society’s default position, the result of exactly the backward step under discussion here that both psychology and psychiatry took in the name of pseudo-science, is harmful rather than helpful quite often (I have explored a more positive approach on this blog – see the six links to An Approach to Psychosis). Pim van Lommel’s research into NDEs replicates the same kind of pattern in that patients whose families and friends were unsympathetic took much longer to integrate their experiences and found it a more painful process than those who were met with support and understanding. He summarises this (page 51):

When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.

We tend to underestimate the frequency of ‘hallucinations’ in the ‘normal’ population, something the Myers was already aware of (page 108):

One of the most important accomplishments of Myers, Guerney, and their colleagues in psychical research was in demonstrating the previously suspected, but as it turns out not infrequent, occurrence of hallucinations in normal, healthy individuals.

Not all them should be dismissed as fantasy (page 109):

These studies and surveys also demonstrated that such hallucinations are not always purely subjective in origin. Some, in fact, are veridical – that is, they involve seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing some event happening at a physically remote location. . . . . Using their own figures for the frequency with which people recall having hallucinations in a waking, healthy state, together with statistics regarding the incidence of death in the United Kingdom, they concluded that hallucinations coinciding with a death happened too frequently to be attributable to chance.

All in all, Myers’s mould-breaking approach to the mind and to the problems of consciousness is refreshing to say the least, and maps onto my own long-standing interests in spirituality, creativity and ‘psychosis.’ It was icing on the cake to find what he said about science and religion, a point to savour and a good note to end this post on (page 113) :

On the one hand, . . . he believed that science could ‘prove the preamble of all religions’ – namely, that the universe extends far beyond the perceptible material world. On the other hand., religion could contribute to ‘the expansion of Science herself until she can satisfy those questions which the human heart will rightly ask, but to which Religion alone has thus far attempted an answer.’

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