Posts Tagged ‘Iain McGilchrist’

Birmingham QE Hosp MedicalSchool

As I walk onto the platform a garbled announcement on the PA system informs me that the crackle for Birmingham will hiss from crackle 4.

I stroll in plenty of time to the appropriate end of platform 3. I’m glad of the bench on which to park my faded brown backpack loaded with food, coffee and a laptop. Just as I’m putting it down I hear a voice in my ear.

‘This train doesn’t usually go from 4, does it?’ The tone is full of a positive energy that sounds quite infectious.

I look up. A lady, slightly younger than me, is placing a brightly coloured shopping bag on the bench.

‘It used to but it hasn’t happened for ages. Not sure why now,’ I answer.

As we speak our train goes past the platform causing a moment of confusion before we realise it will have to reverse back onto the cul-de-sac of platform 4.

‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.

‘To the University.’

‘Oh! Why there?’

‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’

‘Oh wow!’ She almost leaps out of her skin. ‘That’s my life’s work. I’ve spent years working on that.’

‘You’re kidding,’ I say, almost equally astonished.

‘No. Honestly. It really is.’

Our train pulls to a stop behind us. We pick up our bags and wait by a door for the light to come on.

‘Do you mind if we sit together? I’d love to talk,’ she asks.

‘I’d be happy to. I will just need 15 minutes before we get to University station to go over my notes.’ (There’s copy of them for anyone interested in the footnotes.)

‘No problem. I’ll be getting off at Worcester.’


The light comes on. I press to open the door and we settle at a table close by in the warm sunlight streaming through the glass.

The talking begins between us even before I take my coat off. It continues in a constant flow thereafter. Two girls who initially chose to sit at the table opposite to us decide to move to the next carriage. The idea of an hour’s exposure to the excited exchanges of two old fogeys discussing mind, spirit, higher energy, God, the universe and an afterlife is clearly too much for them.

Later, as the train pulls out of Great Malvern I take a card out of my wallet to write down the name of the book we were just discussing: Faith, Physics & Psychology by John Fitzgerald Medina.

‘Are your details on the back?’ she asks.

‘For sure. Is it OK if I have yours,’ I ask getting out my notebook.

‘No problem. I don’t have a television, email address or computer anymore, but this is my mobile.’

I scribble it down.

‘I wasn’t planning to take this train,’ she explains. ‘But my sister wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest so I said I’d go back early.’

‘That’s weird,’ I reply. ‘I was going to take the later train but the organiser of the seminar wanted me there earlier to set up, so I decided to travel on this one.’

We definitely conclude that our meeting is synchronicity not coincidence. Chance doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation.

She gets off at Foregate Street. I get out my notes to check, for the last time, that they will work for an interactive session with about 15 people. Well before my destination I am happy with my notes. I just watch for the tall clock tower that will signal I am nearly there.

There it is on schedule. I pack up my stuff. As I walk along the platform towards the exit stairs I ring the organiser.

‘I’m going to need my car,’ she tells me, ‘so give me time to drive around the one-way system to pick you up. It’ll take me longer than it would to walk.’

I wait in watery sunlight for the lift, with my destination in eyeshot. I am totally unprepared for what is about to happen.

In about five minutes her car pulls up. Within less than a minute we are squeezing into the cramped car park in front of the looming facade of the Medical Centre. We talk our way through the elaborate security system and I’m in the shining glass and gleaming metal entrance hall again. Memories of the last time four years ago flood back. I’ve described them before so won’t dwell on them now.

We climb the stairs to the first floor labyrinth. We fruitlessly loop round the circle of one set of seminar rooms and set off from the stairwell round the next. We are in luck. The last room we come to is the one for us.

Thirty chairs. Rather more than I was expecting but still not too many for a seminar-style approach even if the room is full.

As the system there won’t talk to my Mac, I save my Keynote slides onto a memory stick in PowerPoint format. The university computer obligingly accepts them. The first slide appears on the screen.


We’re good to go.

Fifteen minutes before we start. The room is filling up. We need more chairs. Five minutes to go and a student asks me if she can sit down in front of the first row. Before I can even answer, another student kneels down to my left.

‘That’s not necessary,’ I joke, implying I’m not a guru. She seems to get the joke but I’m not quite sure.

The professor I’ve been talking to in-between all the toing and froing, stands up at this point, looks around and says, ‘I’m going to find a bigger room.’ Our organiser goes with him. I look up towards the door and see the queue of people three-wide snaking out into the corridor.

I decide to start packing up all my stuff to set up again somewhere else. I sense this could take some time.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

After what seems an eternity of fidgeting restlessly in our places, whether sitting, kneeling, pacing or standing, we’re told to follow the professor to a lecture theatre up stairs. We trail behind him chatting desultorily. When we get to the stairs there’s a traffic jam.

Stalled half-way up the stairwell on a step less wide than my foot is long I’m left with an insecure sense I might topple backwards at any moment onto the tail of the queue below .

Minutes pass.

‘We need to go downstairs to the ground floor. There’s a room there,’ someone shouts from on high.

We dutifully turn round and slowly descend. We wait in the shining entrance hall. I begin to see how many of us there are. This is definitely going to be no seminar. It really will have to be a lecture. Lectures aren’t my thing. I love bouncing ideas around in small groups, learning from others in an intense exchange of perspectives.

Still, I’m going to have to make the best of a bad job.

At last! The porter (not sure that’s the right word) comes back and leads us along a different labyrinthine corridor, from which we step into a massive hall with the lectern stuck in the far left corner away from the door.

This could be tricky, I think.

As people take their seats I set up again.

The microphone doesn’t work and it’s fixed to the desktop so I can’t carry it anyway.

I stare incredulously into the vast space around me. The front row is several feet away and the back row seems in a different dimension altogether. I’m going to have to shout. I get my flask of coffee out. I’m going to need it if I don’t want to be croaking by the end. At a conservative estimate there are about 100 people here. I’m glad I didn’t know this in advance. I’d be jelly by now if I had.

I set the slide to show the word ‘Consciousness’ again. I prepare my reluctant mind for lecture mode.

They introduce me. I start by explaining that I want to leave space for questions and feedback as we go, even though we are so many. I want to learn from their perspectives as well as sharing mine.

I try to click onto the next text with my right hand on the mouse. The right button does nothing. I need a track pad!

‘This isn’t working,’ I share. ‘I’m used to a real computer.’ They laugh. That helps.

‘Press the left button,’ a supportive voice from the front row advises.

That works. ‘Spirit, Mind or Brain,’ appears.

I ask my three questions. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is simply a product of the brain?’ Maybe forty hands or so shoot up. There are too many to count properly. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is independent of the brain?’ Almost the same number. That’s encouraging. ‘How many have no real idea which way to go on this?’ Probably about twenty.

I go on to share my collision of perspectives in 1982 after I’d moved from atheism to the Bahá’í Faith. I click for the ‘Abdu’l-Bahá quote. After repeating my earlier mistake, the quote appears.

Mind & Spirit

Mind & Spirit

Things begin to settle down. The details of the kind of explanation I intended to give I will share in the next short sequence of posts. It’s close to what happens on the day but not exactly the same. I’ll keep the story very brief for now. I’ve gone on long enough.

Episodes of explanation interspersed with a few questions flow on from here for over an hour.

I start by explaining my default position of doubt . . . . .

Inevitable Uncertainty

Inevitable Uncertainty

. . . . . before moving on to the improbability of life: how much more so of consciousness.

“Why bother investigating at all if we can’t prove anything for certain?’ someone asks later. I think after the event I should have said, ‘If science had only ever investigated what looked like a cast-iron certainty, where would quantum physics be now? By the end of the 19th Century eminent scientists thought there was hardly anything left to find out!’

As it is I offer, ‘We need to balance science and spirituality, as the Bahá’í Faith argues, if our civilisation is going to fly rather than crash even though the best we will ever get with human minds is an enhanced but still incomplete understanding which we can’t be completely sure is true.’

The muddle of models about the mind brain relationship. Isn’t monism the better idea? Is it all a solipsism?

‘Filter or spectrum?’ is the question I put. The brain as transceiver maybe.

Myers Spectrum 2

Myers Spectrum (1/2)

The effects of skunk. Do psychedelics break down the filter both ways – the infrared of stuff from below and the ultraviolet of input from above?

Myers Spectrum

Myers Spectrum (2/2)

Psi, though a small effect, is too rigorously explored and too improbable to dismiss – the issue is the explanation not the effect itself. Science has to take this seriously.

‘Isn’t all this a waste of time when we know consciousness is just the beautiful product of evolution and the massive complexity of our neuronal connections?’ asks a student in the second row. I pause to stop myself responding too sharply. I feel at least half the material so far was supposed to have dealt with that. I answer quietly, ‘Such a discount in advance of investigation dismisses countless experiences and phenomena as pure fantasy even though so many people are convinced they are real.’ I should have added, ‘Open-minded agnosticism is the only objective stance for science to take without betraying itself.’

Just before stopping I ask how many people present would be prepared to risk their reputation to investigate the spiritual aspects of consciousness. About ten people put up their hands. That is more than I would have expected. Encouraging again.

At the end there is a queue of students asking more questions and to share contact details. By the time I leave at 19.20 to catch my train I am in a daze of disbelief. I just hope I didn’t sell the topic short as I believe a more open-minded approach to the issue of consciousness is vital if we are to move towards the collaboration between science and religion that is required if we are to create a healthier society.

As I remember stating before, on my previous talk in this same building, if we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and SoulJohn Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in a crash landing.

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82


The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!

If there are fewer than 20 people I might ask them their names and one relevant fact.


How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is entirely a product of the brain?

How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is in some way independent of the brain?

How many of you are not at all sure which way to go on this?

  1. ‘Doubt Wisely’

Explore the agnosticism case:

William James

Dennet & Churchland

John Hick & Eric Reitan

  1. Prevalent Theories
  2. Eliminative Materialism
  3. Epiphenomenon
  4. Emergent Property
  5. Seen by most as unscientific

Given the improbability of life unless there really are infinite universes (the multiverse theory) the improbability of consciousness is even greater, so perhaps we need to approach the problems it poses with as open a mind as possible (cf Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma – God or infinite universes – both unacceptable to him.)

  1. Mind as completely independent of the brain.

This need not imply survival after bodily death but does entail the idea that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain and that, though probably immaterial, it can control/influence the material brain (cf Schwartz).

  1. Mind as a spiritual entity.

This brings with it baggage our mainstream empirical materialistic culture does not welcome.

  1. There is a spiritual dimension including perhaps a collective unconscious and a potential capacity in all humans to access experiences without any obvious material mechanism (cf work on psi);
  2. There is survival after death (cf reincarnation, mediumship – inconclusive given fraud and super-psi);
  3. What survives is our sense of perceptive individuality in relation to others who have died, to the material world and to a transcendent power often referred to as God in Western culture (NDE evidence cf especially Sartori).

 So What?

The issue should be not to say that the evidence must be seriously flawed because I know the direction it points is not possible. Rather to admit that the evidence raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Otherwise we have scientism not science. The issue is the validity of the interpretation not the validity of the evidence.

How to explore it further?

Well, experimenter expectation effects have to be taken into account. These cut both ways. The convinced will tend to elicit positive results: sceptics the opposite.

Also putting people with suspected psi through thousands of repetitions of the same task will inevitably lead to increasingly random performance. Imagine going to the optician as I did recently and have them run the dot spotting peripheral vision acuity task 1000 times. I’d probably be rated spot-blinded tunnel vision by the end as boredom and fatigue increasingly eroded my attention.

Also the threat to your career as a credible scientist needs to be addressed. Not many people are prepared to commit career suicide by investigating what has been written off a priori as delusional. Often also neither unbelievers nor believers are keen to spend years investigating what they already know to be a fact.

What we need in any case are detached and genuinely agnostic scientists to come forward (because they are most likely to obtain objectively credible results), jeopardise their careers, struggle for funding and devote decades to the exploration of an aspect of this issue.

How many of you are up for that right now?

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'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

An unexpected ‘like’ alerted me to the existence of this post which I had completely forgotten. As I am planning to post a short sequence next week on the theme of consciousness – whether it is spirit, mind or brain – this post from 2010 seemed too closely related not to be repeated!

In a recent post I reviewed Iain McGilchrist‘s thought-provoking new book The Master and His Emissary. The night before last I watched a DVD, Food, Inc, about the American food industry (more of that in a moment). The images and information the film conveyed reminded me immediately of the nightmare world McGilchrist feels will be created by the untrammelled operation of the utilitarian left-hemisphere.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist spells out simply and clearly some of the characteristics of that world:

Skills . . . would be reduced to algorithmic procedures . . . which could be regulated by administrators. . . . Increasingly the living world would be modelled on the mechanical. . . . When we deal with a machine, there are three things that we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. . . . In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere’s appreciation of How (quality) would be lost.

(page 430)

He also quotes the work of Berger and colleagues (1974). When a society becomes dominated by technology they predict the development of what they call ‘mechanisticity’ and other distortions of the human spirit. This means:

. . . the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organisation or a production line: ‘measurability’, in other words the insistence on quantification, not qualification; ‘componentiality’, that is reality reduced to self-contained units, so that ‘everything is analysable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components’; and an ‘abstract frame of reference’, in other words loss of context.

(page 430)

He summarises Gabriel Marcel as speaking of:

. . . the difficulty in maintaining one’s integrity as a unique, individual subject, in a world where a combination of the hubris of science and the drive of technology blots out the awe-inspiring business of conscious human existence, what he refers to as ‘the mystery of being,’ and replaces it with a set of technical problems for which they purport to have solutions.


Ultimately, ‘[m]orality would come to be judged at best on the basis of utilitarian calculation, at worst on the basis of enlightened self-interest’ (page 431).

The DVD ‘Food, Inc‘ gives us a vivid insight into just how ‘enlightened’ that self-interest has already turned out to be.

The trailer below gives only a faint flavour of the power of the film:

The advert for the film, also on YouTube, packs a somewhat stronger punch but could not be embedded here. There is, though, no substitute for sitting through a rather harrowing 90 minutes to convey the full horror of the reality to which blinkered left-brain processes reduce us when they are unmoderated by the empathic big picture the right-brain brings to bear.

It is fascinating to see how Schwartz’s book, which I also reviewed recently, shows how a different path has led him to similar conclusions. He writes in his co-authored book, The Mind & the Brain (page 276):

Stapp made the point that there is no stronger influence on human values than man’s belief about his relationship to the power that shapes the universe. . . . When the scientific revolution converted human beings from sparks of divine creation into not particularly special cogs in a giant impersonal machine, it eroded any rational basis for the notion of responsibility for one’s actions. We became a mechanical extension of what preceded us, over which we have no control.

This view is permeating our culture, he feels:

The view that people are mere machines and that the mind is just another (not particularly special) manifestation of a clockwork physical universe [has] infiltrated all our thinking . . .

(page 258)

In his view, it accounts for all ‘our moral decrepitude’ because

. . . materialism as a world view . . . . holds that the physical is all that exists, and that transcendent human mental experiences and emotions . . . are in reality nothing but the expressions of electrical impulses zipping along neurons.


This simplistic world view then refuses to acknowledge that there is a ‘mental force’ (i.e. a ‘physical force generated by mental effort’, which is not itself material – page 295) by means of which ‘through intense effort we can resist our baser appetites’ (page 257).

Such a reductionist world view is many million miles apart from the Bahá’í view that, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expressed it:

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Some Answered Questions)

Not only that. Volition, He explains, is a special characteristic not found in matter:

Man possesses certain virtues of which nature is deprived. He exercises volition; nature is without will. For instance, an exigency of the sun is the giving of light. It is controlled — it cannot do otherwise than radiate light — but it is not volitional.

(Promise of Universal Peace)

It seems as though this defective world view, which we can as a shorthand label materialism, which thrives when the left hemisphere cuts free of the right, is a significant part of the answer to a critical question religious faith poses to us:

Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself?

(Arabic Hidden Words: number 13)

The question which confronts us all is: ‘What am I going to do about it?’

This blog is part of my attempt to work out an answer.

The Bahá’í view at its core contends that, if we are to have an impact, we all need to find ways of working together rather than alone. We have to recognise our essential unity with everyone else, with all life everywhere,  before these problems can be properly addressed. Obviously, once that sense of oneness begins to be established, the more of us there are using it as an operating principle the greater our impact will be.

It seems to me that the thrust of McGilchrist’s position is that it will take nothing less than the combined energies of our entire being to empower us to succeed in this struggle, the humane wisdom of the right brain moderating the blind utilitarianism of the left, the wing of true religion and the wing of true science working together to lift us off the ground. This level of energy will only be available when we are at one and in harmony within ourselves. The vision required for this level of personal integration is spiritual not material in origin. Not until sufficient numbers of people invest great efforts of ‘mental force’ over long periods of time to lift themselves to this level will the healing of our society become possible.

Even so, such integration of the psyche is possible if the requisite effort is made and people are successfully making comparable efforts every second of every day. The great spiritual traditions as well as the latest developments in neuropsychology, underpinned in Schwartz’s view by modern physics, combine to confirm that this must and can be done.

We don’t have to let the machine mentality take over the world completely. More and more of us can join in building towards the critical mass of effort that will create a tipping point. Hopefully, in ever increasing numbers, we will.

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As I indicated last time, after exploring some of the complexities of the transliminality concept,  I am just going to start from the brain and work my way up from there.

So, we need to answer some basic questions first.

psychosis-spiritualityWhat is the Threshold?

What might this threshold be that Claridge referred to and how does it operate? Note that he has mixed psychosis and magic into its effects (Psychosis and Spirituality – 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.

Isabel Clarke, in the same book, seeks to tackle this using Teasdale and Barnard’s model of interacting cognitive systems. She writes (pages 108-09 – my italics):

[The ICS model concerns two central subsystems of the brain with imperfect intercommunication]. The implicational subsystem communicates directly with, and is much influenced by, the various sense modalities and the body’s arousal system, whereas the propositional system is more removed from this emotional area, and indeed, the vital communication between the two systems, which makes good cognitive functioning possible, can become temporarily disabled by a state of high or low arousal.

She clarifies what she feels is the distinction between

. . . . the everyday, scientific state . . . where the propositional and implicational subsystems are working nicely together in balance, [and] the spiritual/psychotic state . . . where the two are disjointed, and the system is essentially driven by the implicational subsystem.

She spells out the core issue concerning shifts into the implicational mode:

For the person with psychosis, the barrier that makes this sort of experience hard to access for most of us, is dangerously loose. . . . . When the asynchrony persists and there is not a rapid reconnection of the two main subsystems, this will be followed by loss of bearings because of having drifted out of reach of the construct system, or the propositional system, which people rely on to make sense of their environment.

It is not just that the ‘barrier’ is ‘loose.’ There are times when:

. . .  the orderly return does not happen. The individual finds themselves stranded beyond the reach of their constructs or propositional subsystem, trying to operate in the world. Not surprisingly this is extraordinarily difficult. . . . . The desperate sufferer tries to make sense of the unfamiliar environment, clutching at whatever connections come to hand. In this way, delusions, which usually have their origin in the early stages of the breakdown, are born. In another dissolution of normal boundaries, internal concerns are experienced as external communication and the person hears voices. Normal thought is disrupted – or as the psychiatrist would say, disordered.

It is clear that what she is describing is captured entirely by the concept of filter or the process of filtering. I am probably tilting towards a process rather than a object word, so the idea of filtering is beginning to appeal more to me than the idea of a filter. I have found it frustrating that I cannot access primary sources very easily on this aspect of filtering. The nearest reference I have found summarises its use of the ICS model as follows (Gumley et al 1999 – An Interacting Cognitive Subsystems Model of Relapse and the Course of Psychosis – page 275):

The ICS [interacting cognitive systems] approach enables a detailed view of how multiple sources of information interact to establish self-organizing, self-perpetuating, processing configurations that act to maintain persistent cognitive-affective states. The model predicts that implicational meaning is critically involved in the processes of initiation, acceleration and maintenance of relapse in psychosis.

Master and Emissary

They make no mention of filters or thresholds.

Isabelle Clarke’s book, published in 2010, relies exclusively for its explanation of transliminality upon Teasdale and Barnard’s 1993 interacting cognitive subsystems model, being presumably unaware at that point of McGilchrist’s 2009 hemispheric model brilliantly explored in The Master & his Emissary. He has much to say that sheds further light on what might be going on here. The key passages for our purposes fall between pages 211-233.

He is looking at the problem from the point of view that the two hemispheres of the brain have two separate ways of operating. The left hemisphere, to be a touch simplistic, is predominantly linguistic and analytical, the right holistic and metaphorical. McGilchrist uses his book not only to illustrate how they work but also to argue that our culture is dangerously privileging the left hemisphere mode. I have dealt with that in more detail elsewhere. I will only say more on that aspect here where it is helpful.

McGilchrist is not arguing that the two hemispheres have to be in each other’s pockets all the time:

My thesis is that the hemispheres have complementary but conflicting tasks to fulfil, and need to maintain a high degree of mutual ignorance. At the same time they need to cooperate.

How does this work, he asks.

There is a communication bridge between them called the corpus callosum:

If one thinks of the relationship between the hemispheres as being like that between the two hands of the pianist . . . one can see that the task of the corpus callosum has to be as much to do with inhibition of process as it is with facilitation of information transfer, and cooperation requires the correct balance to be maintained

If the corpus callosum is damaged there is more information transfer between the hemispheres:

This apparently paradoxical finding makes sense if the main purpose of the corpus callosum is to maintain separation of the hemispheres.

We can already see that this is heading in the same direction as Clarke’s explanation of Teasdale and Barnard’s ICS model. There is a filter between one aspect of consciousness and another, which can break down.

This at least lends strength to the proven way that the skunk form of marijuana can trigger psychosis:

Dr. Paola Dazzan, reader in neurobiology of psychosis from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, and senior researcher on the study, said in a statement: “We found that frequent use of high potency cannabis significantly affects the structure of white matter fibres in the brain, whether you have psychosis or not. This reflects a sliding scale where the more cannabis you smoke and the higher the potency, the worse the damage will be.”

White matter is made of large bundles of nerve cells called axons, which connect the grey matter in different regions of the brain, enabling fast communication between them. The corpus callosum, a band of nerve fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres, is the largest white matter structure within the brain. The corpus callosum is rich in cannabinoid receptors that are affected by the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis.

Interestingly McGilchrist brings a quote from the Upanishads into the mix at this point:

All in all, my view is that the corpus callosum does act principally as the agent to differentiation rather than integration, though ultimately differentiation may be in the service of integration. . . . . . [The] Upanishads] say: “in the space within the heart lies the controller of all… He is the bridge that serves as a boundary to keep the different worlds apart.

Routinely we blunder along automatically at what McGilchrist refers to as level one. But that is not always enough:

In the discussion of level one, the emphasis was on the necessary inhibition of one hemisphere by the other, since they each need to work separately. However, at a higher level, and over a longer time span, they also need to work together, not just because some important human factors, such as imagination, appear to depend on the synthesis of the workings of both hemispheres.

Without getting embroiled in the detail, the key point is this:

The right hemisphere certainly needs the left, but the left hemisphere depends on the right. Much that marks us out, in the positive sense as well as the negative sense, as human beings requires the intervention of the left hemisphere, as long as it is acting in concert with the right hemisphere. Important human faculties depend on the synthesis of their activity. In the absence of such concerted action, the left hemisphere comes to believe its territory actually is the world.

As he sees it, ‘one field of consciousness’ has to ‘accommodate two wills.’

Given my Entish tendencies he quotes what for me is a brilliant and beautiful metaphor to convey a key aspect of his model. I need to start one step back though.

He writes: ‘. . . the core of the self, is affective and deep-lying: its roots lie at a level below the hemispheric divide, a level, however, with which each cognitively aware hemisphere at the highest level is still in touch.’

I need to emphasise, before anyone gets too mystical, he is still dealing with the brain here.

Later I will have cause to refer once more to the point he makes now. He goes on:

So much of our experience, and our sense of our self, comes from low down in the ‘tree’ of consciousness, below hemispheric level: ‘integration’ does not need to be achieved. All the corpus callosum has to do is to help maintain moment-to-moment independence of the hemispheres, not integration of the self.

Panksepp, whose description he is drawing on, sees consciousness as ‘not all or nothing, but has a continuous existence, transforming itself as it travels upwards, through the branches, to what he calls, by analogy with the forest canopy, the “cerebral canopy”, until in the frontal cortices it becomes high-level cognitive awareness.’ McGilchrist emphasises that he prefers this analogy as it makes clear that consciousness is not a bird but ‘a tree, its roots deep inside us.’ He spells out that for him it is not ‘an entity but a process.’

I’ve already made clear that this preference for process over reification is one I share.

McGilchrist makes a key point about this filtering process and the holistic mode of the right-hemisphere:

Most, if not all, of the ‘functions’ mediated by the right hemisphere fall into this category of what has to remain outside the focus of awareness – implicit, intuitive, unattended to.


Painting by David Chuck of a psychotic experience (Image scanned from ‘The Master & his Emissary’ plate 2)

He adds something of relevance also to the issue of psychosis:

The idea that self-consciousness, in the sense of being aware of ourselves doing or being something, is the left hemisphere inspecting the right is supported by a number of observations. The attentional ‘spotlight’ . . . is a function of the left hemisphere. The casualties in self consciousness are all right hemisphere based, social or empathic skills. And schizophrenic subjects, whose psychopathology depends on a reflexive hyperconsciousness, and who often depict a detached observing eye in their paintings, show a relative hypofunction of the right hemisphere in relation to the left.

This has contrary implications for the psychosis/transliminality hypothesis. It implies the operation of a hypervigilant left-hemisphere rather than a leaking filter system. However, such hypervigilance would not rule a filter issue completely and the overall model McGilchrist is advocating supports the possibility of systemic cross pollination: he quotes Ramachandran as saying ‘[The brain’s] connections are extraordinarily labile and dynamic. Perceptions emerge as a result of reverberations of signals between different levels of the sensory hierarchy, indeed across different senses.’

We are not done with McGilchrist yet, but this seems a reasonably good place at which to pause.

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Pilgrim’s Progress

Remember the saying: `Of all pilgrimages the greatest is to relieve the sorrow-laden heart.’

(‘Abdu’l-BaháSelections 52)

‘Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is all mankind.”

(Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level,  page 28)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing this post and a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

For those who might have been holding their breath since my last post on the subject, I did in the end manage to finish Jonathan Stedall‘s Where on Earth is Heaven?

The last chapter was particularly resonant. It looks at how gloomily the world is portrayed in the news and seeks to redress the balance. He believes our ‘capacity for empathy is stirring’ (page 532). He refers to books that I feel I will be buying in due time.

Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken is the first one. He sees the current burgeoning of a network of non-profit organisations as ‘humanity’s immune response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation’ (ibid.) He quotes, on the same page, Bill McKibben‘s comment on the book:

The movers and shakers on our planet aren’t the billionaires and the generals – they are the incredible numbers of people around the world filled with love for neighbour and for the earth who are resisting, remaking, restoring, renewing, revitalising.

He refers (page 535) to an equally interesting book – The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (see an earlier sequence). He describes cultural creatives (page 536) as sharing ‘what are often described as feminine values in relation to family life, education, relationships, responsibilities and caring in general.’ They constitute, in the view of the authors, about 25% of the population they studied.

What is currently lacking, he feels, is a way for such people to combine their energies together without compromising their creativity.

I’ll resist the temptation to expand on how much this, for me, is uncannily in synch with the ideals and developing practices of the Bahá’í community. Posts dealing with this are to be found throughout this blog. In this vein, though, Stedall also speaks of a zeitgeist that may be helping us shift in this direction, and, in a fascinating parenthesis, suggests that this effect would be more powerful ‘if the zeitgeist is an actual being and not an abstract concept’ (page 534). And in the end there is a quote (page 357) that could almost have come from a Bahá’í pen:

Today many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself – while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.

(Václav Havel: 1984)

If we look for them we can find examples, not just of the downside of our predicament, but of the uplifting aspect as well.

Examples of the morally blind side of our nature can carry the seeds of the more positive vision, of course. An example of that is a hit of the moment – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think I am wrenching the implications of its exploration of the blind side completely out of shape by saying that it is a compelling study of where absence of empathy and compassion can take us. It is powerful and effective, if a touch melodramatic in places.

There are also many places where we find a sense of positive potential which does not shirk the reality of the darkness. Blind Side is a good example, a film based on real events. It illustrates perhaps one of the best ways of protecting ourselves against the worst effects of our blind side.

If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo managed to avoid the worst excesses of melodrama (I’m not quite sure where to place the savagery of the rape scene in this: in terms of the film’s moral balancing act, it triggers the ‘girl’s’ revenge while, at the same time, helping us empathise with her rage: I felt manipulated emotionally though), Blind Side is only tinged and not spoilt by the occasional hint of sentimentality. It shows us the power of empathy and how much it can accomplish in the hands of people flawed in many ways as we all are. Our flaws are not a reason to evade this challenge.

And so, finishing Jonathan Stedall’s book, after a few other detours into film, has brought me back to a book I set aside many months ago – another book that inspired and irritated me in about equal measure. This book is Jeremy Rifkin‘s The Empathic Civilization which I think I will now attempt to read right to the end. Where I left off (pages 314-315) he is beginning to tackle the duality Iain McGilchrist explored from the point of view of brain structure:

When it comes to consciousness itself, one is struck by the fact that the human being is both a feeling and thinking animal [I’d prefer the word ‘being’ but there you go – that’s what makes reading Rifkin a bit of a switchback]. Therefore, one of the critical questions in the modern era has been which of the two – feeling or thinking – is the most relevant to understanding ‘human nature”?

How could I possibly resist another bite at this cherry?

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In 2010 I published this post which attempted to define the appeal of poetry for me. I republished it again in early 2015. As it probably reflects my deepest feelings on the subject it seemed only right to give it another airing after the Shelley sequence on reality, art and the artist.  

Over the years of trying to read it and create it I have come to have a feeling for what poetry is for me.

This is not a theory about poetry. There can be no true theory about poetry whose essence eludes all theory. Poetry for me is about approaching an aspect of experience beyond the reach of prose and possibly beyond the reach of words at all. When I attempt to write a poem of potential value I am striving to express what I can’t explain, even to myself.

W. H. Auden

Auden referred to this as ‘solving for the unknown.’

Now, there are many perfectly enjoyable examples of what many people refer to as poetry which don’t do this. Such productions don’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before: they just describe it better – ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,’ as Alexander Pope put it.

McGilchrist, in his book The Master and his Emissary, deals well with this issue of what great poetry does that’s different. He quotes Scheler (pages 341-342):

[Poets] actually extend the scope of our possible self awareness. They effect a real enlargement of the kingdom of the mind and make new discoveries, as it were, within that kingdom. . . . That is indeed the mission of all true art: not to reproduce what is already given . . ., nor to create something in the pure play of subjective fancy . . . ., but to press forward into the whole of the external world and the soul, to see and communicate those objective realities within it which rule and convention have hitherto concealed.

He sees the limitations of Augustan, i.e. 18th Century English, poetry which represents experience pleasingly rather than authentically. Even art forms not so concerned with pleasing and more with informing the mind or inspiring the heart along predetermined lines, such as political propaganda or religious hymns, fall short of being great poetry by my definition. Once you compare, for example, a typical hymn with what Emily Dickinson did with the same pattern on the page, you inevitably get closer to seeing the difference between great inspirational verse and great exploratory poetry.

Cardinal Newman is in the spotlight at the moment as the Vatican ponders on moving him towards sainthood via beatification. He wrote the words of a still very popular hymn:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

This is beautifully put but the imagery is purely conventional and what it conveys is deeply familiar. We don’t need the hymn to introduce it to us. It is comforting to find the well-trodden paths of our own experience reflected back to us in this way. It helps us keep plodding on perhaps, which may be no bad thing sometimes. There is an honourable place for such work as this.

Emily Dickinson‘s experience is by contrast right at the edge of a darkness most of us know very little if anything about, even after more than 100 years, though a typical theme of hers, which I use here to illustrate her gift, is one that haunts us still. It’s in one of her better known (and therefore hopefully better understood) poems, of which I quote only the first verse:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

What exactly are we to make of this?

At one level it’s as easy to understand as Newman’s hymn. The imagery is as familiar in one sense as his. We know almost as much about funeral carriages (see the link below to When the Circle is Unbroken)  as we do about the night. But not carriages that carry immortality as well. So puzzles begin to arise.

How can a carriage carry both death and immortality? They’re deadly enemies and immortality is vast – too big to fit even into a stretch limo. So the familiar here is used in an unsettling even sinister way.

And why the hyphens? And the ironic tone – calling death’s action ‘kindly’ for example. In any case, if we are conscious, his carriage is usually stopping to pick up someone else – maybe someone close to us, but definitely not us. So, what’s this poem really about?

Because the theme of this poem lies within a great tradition we can all begin to formulate answers to these questions. ‘Oh, death must be kind because he is releasing us into the realm of immortality.’ But, in truth, the poem in its entirety does not make it easy for us to settle into any one explanation as complete or satisfactory. She is using the verse form of the hymn to probe disquietingly into the themes that hymns are there to comfort us about.

Even my own modest efforts at poetry come up against this wall between what can be felt and what can be said. And that even when the experience described is pretty commonplace.

The Last Thing on my Mind
(with thanks to Julie Felix)

On a bare and wooden stage, a metal chair
and two guitars wait in the still and empty air
until, with her lined face and jet black hair,
much lighter than her years she runs up to
the microphones and chooses her guitar.

Her long black veil, blurred with early morning rain,
dissolves into the long room in Wood Green
where, more than forty years ago, blues ran
the game
: when the circle was unbroken,
Tom Paxton knew the last thing on my mind.

Now, in the mangle of my mind, the rollers
of my memories, and her melodies,
compress the fragile screen of consciousness
so thin the dyes of different times bleed both ways
with such relentless pressure thought stammers.

Even released days later, this ink’s flow
does not convey what I have come to know
nor my tongue catch its air within the strings of speech
though it was strings that brought her music within reach.

It doesn’t take a brilliant critic to realise how much greater this gap is when spiritual experiences are involved, as in Dickinson’s case.

George Herbert‘s genius, in a way not dissimilar to Dickinson’s, lies at least in part in his knowing how to use the commonplace to bridge the gap.

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And made a suit unto him, to afford
A new small rented lease, and cancel th’old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

We’re in a world of tenants, landlords, manors, parks and theatres. The verse form is a common or garden sonnet, albeit one that mixes the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan forms. His readers would have read hundreds of similar ones, many about worldly love, some dealing with the divine.

But at the same time we’re also sharing an aspect of Herbert’s experience of Christ. He has made it possible for us to capture something about that which is clearly impossible to summarise. The poem gives us an experience which extends our world – well, I believe it does – and I would defy anyone to express what we have learned except by reading the poem to me again.

Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens near Acre, Israel – a haven for Bahá’u’lláh in His last years


A tradition of Bahá’í poetry has a long way to go to catch up. Christianity goes back two thousand years compared to our mere one hundred-and-sixty-seven. I don’t think we can yet match Dickinson and Herbert who were both standing on the shoulders of giants.

One of the earliest Bahá’í poets was Tahirih. I only know her in translation but a non-Bahá’í scholar, Farzaneh Milani, praises her highly (page 91 in Veils and Words) though recognising she can be inaccessible :

Some of Tahereh’s (sic) poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Babi jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle in its way. The erotic-mystical imagery and language she uses reveal an all-consuming love of and an intense devotion to a divine manifestation.

And the translation on page 93 of one of Tahirih’s poems gives a sense of what I might be missing, though I suspect, as always, to translate a poem is to betray it (an old Italian saying about all translation goes: ‘Traduttore, traditore.’).

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

When we look at poems written by Bahá’ís whose native language is English there is only one as yet who is recognised as a poet of stature outside the Bahá’í community, and he is Robert Hayden.

Many of his poems do not confront a Bahá’í theme head on. One that does I have scanned as the layout will be lost if I typed it in. Poems use their shape as well their sound to speak to us, though this shift came only with the birth of writing, then of print.

Scanned from 'Robert Hayden: Collected Poems - edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing)

Scanned from ‘Robert Hayden: Collected Poems – edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing)


Robert Hayden (Photo from John Hatcher, The Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Oxford: George Ronald, 1984.)

Here he is attempting to capture the turning point in a garden in Baghdad when Bahá’u’lláh had arrived at the moment when He would make fully public the exact nature of His Station and Revelation. You can sense Hayden’s struggle to find the words in English that fit his purpose. Christian and quasi-scientific imagery rub shoulders perhaps uneasily, perhaps creatively together – it’s hard to judge. It is a significant achievement but it’s not on George Herbert’s level, I think. But we need to walk this precarious path of poetry unstintingly, persistently, and such gifts of grace as Herbert’s will eventually come our way.

Because great poetry broadens and deepens consciousness it has a significant part to play in building a better world. But great poets do not appear from nowhere. They need a fertile soil from which to grow. That soil is the wide-scale practice of poetry throughout a whole community of minds. Great poets arrive on the scene when ordinary people not only read but write poetry, and not only that but they pass it round from hand to hand, from brain to brain – in the old days it was in manuscript, nowadays it can be in blogs and on Facebook. We all need to play our part in this, if we are so inclined.

So, post a poem and pave the way along which the next great genius can walk into our midst.

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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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[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

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

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 constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake. I realised too late that I had jumped over two posts to leap to 5a – so here they come, better late than never!

In the last posthttps://phulme.wordpress.com/2016/11/12/reality-art-the-artist-4c5-shelleys-poetry-and-politics-2/ I focused mainly on the Mask of Anarchy, and concluded that Shelley manages to avoid the trap of painting only in black, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man.

Ode to the West Wind

At about the same time as he completed this superb protest poem, another of his great poems was incubating, according to Holmes in his biography (page 546):

Shelley went for walks along the banks of the Arno thinking of . . . . his own exile, his ‘passion for reforming the world,’ his apparent impotence to help the downtrodden people of England, the disasters of his private life and inevitably, at 27, the beginning of the end of his youth.

His hair was already becoming streaked with grey, according to Anne Wroe a possible symptom of syphilis. It is perhaps not surprising then to see the appeal of autumn as a symbol of his declining condition and his deep need for a powerful force to lift him out of his despondency. The climax of the The Ode to West Wind fuses these two aspects:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In this poem, I feel, Shelley has managed to curb his tendency to over-wrought diction, which mars so much of his poetry, without selling out the intensity of his feeling and the exaltation of his vision. Also, he has been more successful, as a result, in pitching his imagery at a deeply resonant level. For example, at first sight the idea of ‘dead thoughts’ seems inherently despairing and negative, until you see the comparison with dead leaves, whose death is precisely what is necessary to fertilise new growth. There is a sense of Shelley’s willingness to sacrifice himself in this process, but he does not rub our noses in it in the self-aggrandising way we see so often elsewhere in his poetry. It may be no coincidence that this poem follows on from the risk he took in trying to get The Mask of Anarchy published. (I will be returning to a closer analysis of both these poems in a later post.)

It will come as no surprise to readers of my blog that I find his use of the word ‘hearth’ particularly rich in implications. It contains the words ‘art,’ ‘heart’ and ‘earth’ within it, as I have explained elsewhere. As this was a poem I read often in my late teens, I now find myself wondering whether the core image in the dream I had in my 40s of the hearth, which was so important to my understanding of spiritual processes, was first planted by Shelley.

1 Earth Heart alone

For source of image see link

Elusive Inspiration

I will skate over another long poem – Peter Bell the Third – even though it does have some powerful passages. It is too uneven, and therefore ultimately unsuccessful, to be included here, where I am focusing exclusively on his more powerful poems for what they might reveal about the creative process at its best.

Holmes’s commentary on this period is relevant (page 556):

The astonishing speed and range of his creative output, which had now run in an unbroken curve from 6 September when he first received news of Peterloo, until 5 November, embracing such widely different genres of poetry and prose, and simultaneously throwing off a comet’s tail of ballad fragments and songs, suggest a state of exultant energy and vision, a consciousness of formidable active power that is difficult to conceive in ordinary terms.

He amplifies on this (page 569):

Like the great creative efforts of 1812 and 1817 – which were, equally, responses to political and social crisis in society – the effort of 1819 pushed forward the range of Shelley’s literary powers. It established in his mind more mature conceptions both of the actions and sufferings of other men, and of his own. In artistic terms the greatest gains were in economy and intensity of style.

Ann Wroe makes the astute observation that (page 92) ‘he could not will or control the poetic power, and when it lapsed he was merely a man again.’ What I would very much wish to be able to define, are the factors that connect him to this power so that his work resonates at a higher level than his more workaday verse. This would help me understand better the difference between poetry and verse: they can sometimes, to a cursory glance, appear the same, but repeated exposure reveals the former to penetrate reality far more deeply than the latter.

It was Erich Fromm who alerted me to the distinction between two kinds of stimuli. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, having discussed simple stimuli, which is the common usage of the term stimulus and means a trigger to reaction, he explains that there is another kind of stimulus (page 269):

. . . . one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, and landscape, music, or a loved person. None of these stimuli produce a simple response; they invite you, as it were, to respond by actively and sympathetically relating yourself to them; by becoming actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’… by becoming more awake and more aware.

He unpacks some of the implications of this distinction (pages 269-70):

Stimuli of the first, simple kind, if repeated beyond a certain threshold, are no longer registered and lose their stimulating effect. . . . Activating stimuli have a different effect. They do not remain the same; because of the productive response to them they are always new, always changing: the stimulated person… brings the stimuli to life and changes them by always discovering new aspects in them.

When ‘poetic power’ is present we have activating stimuli which can change our awareness and which repay revisiting: when it is absent there is unlikely to be any such effect. In the final group of posts I will be exploring this issue in greater depth, though it will mean digressing into a discussion of the novel’s capacity to promote empathy as well as exploring the difficulties of distinguishing between a poem that is merely a simple stimulus and therefore probably only verse, and a poem that is an activating one, and therefore poetry in the best sense of that word.

I bet you’re looking forward to that discussion.

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

A Defence of Poetry

After the end of this period comes A Defence of Poetry, which Holmes (page 642) regards as something of an anthology of his earlier prose writing. A well known antecedent is Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry. The Wikipedia article acknowledges his influence on Shelley and beyond, and summarises his message:

In an era of antipathy to poetry and puritanical belief in the corruption engendered by literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function.

One of the most recent descendants is Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry, where he speaks of (page xvii) how poetry can bring ‘human existence into fuller life.’

This may not seem consistent with a strong desire to change the world in some particular way (page 2):

[Poetry] offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist. For the activist, there is going to be no point in envisaging an order which is comprehensive of events but not in itself productive of new events. . . . . They will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view.

He sets an important criterion for the reality that poetry seeks to capture (page 7-8):

Poetry . . . whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and of which it is generated. . . . . As long as the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function.

Shelley stands at a point of time approximately halfway between these publications. Similar to Sidney, he continues to see (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.

Shelley draws a distinction which anticipates Iain McGilchrist, in a way (page 645):

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has for want of the poetic faculty proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world.

Approaching his End

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.

His total lack of interest at this same time in the situation of his own children by Harriet points in the same unfeeling direction.

Writing to Claire at the time of the composition of Adonais, he explained (page 656) that:

. . . .  in writing poetry he found the only real form of mental relief which lifted him above ‘the stormy mist of sensations.’

I won’t be dwelling on this poem here, not only because of its flawed empathy, but also because, while I do not I agree with Holmes’s dismissive description of it as mannered and pompous (page 657), its unevenness raises too many doubts in my mind about its overall quality. I need more time before I can come to a measured assessment.

Concerning what poetry was for him, he said something revealing at this time, which I have also quoted in an earlier post (page 659):

‘The poet and the man are two different natures,’ he explained . . . ‘though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other.’

The best poetry of this period comes under the heading of Pisan Poems though I am not sure at this point what exactly triggered them and therefore am unclear how they might help clarify my current theme.

This is where my rather rapid overview of his poetic output comes to an end and I now face the daunting task in the next set of posts of integrating what I have learnt into my working model of the creative process so I can test it out on other writers. I’ll probably stick to writers because I understand the written arts better than the others, though I don’t necessarily value them more.

Because I messed up the sequence in republishing, the next post in the sequence is 5a: to read that if you wish, see link before moving on to 5b.

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