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Posts Tagged ‘Imagination’

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

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

The next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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DH Maitreyabandhu

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

(The Master & his Emissary: page 115)

My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry, with a vague memory that I’d been somewhere like this before. And sure enough I had. This pair of posts from 2011 is covering related ground – the second piece will be posted tomorrow.

Right now I am deeply grateful to someone whom I had never heard of two weeks ago.

As part of my recent plan to re-engage more with poetry, I rejoined the Poetry Society, and already I am glad I did. The last issue of their magazine contains a profound article by Maitreyabandhu.

Alison Flood wrote in the Guardian in 2009:

Maitreyabandhu, who has been ordained into the Western Buddhist Order for 19 years, says his love of poetry began when a friend read him the first five verses of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. “It was one of those moments when one discovers a new ecstasy, even a new calling. After that I read and re-read Shelley and Keats obsessively and used their poetry to explore ancient Buddhist themes,” he said. “WH Auden says, ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us’. The same could be said of Buddhism. I approach poetry, in one sense as a distillation of peak experience, in another as finding meaning in the everyday – as such, poetry has become another strand of my spiritual practice.”

In the two years since then he has moved to a place from which he can write about poetry and spirituality with a degree of wisdom I have rarely encountered before. He is grappling with a set of interrelated issues that have preoccupied me for many years: the value of imagination, the nature of creativity and its relationship with compassion, the purpose and nature of poetry and the light all of this might shed on mind/brain processes. I have achieved some clarity about some of that but the angle that he views these issues from will be invaluable in moving my thinking forwards, I suspect. (For more on some of my own struggles so far see the links at the bottom of the page.)

I have long been aware that imagination, rather like fire, is a good friend but a dangerous enemy. I remember vaguely, from my days as a student of English Literature, Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination. I have pondered on the dichotomy the Bahá’í scriptures point up. On the one hand we have imagination as a power of the human spirit as described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

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

(Some Answered Questions: page 210)

On the other hand, we have ‘vain imaginings’ that are not to be trusted.

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.

(Tablets of  Bahá’u’lláh: page 58)

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges?

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. 1 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.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (for source of image see link)

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (for source of image see link)

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. . . . .  Fancy, to use the words of Iggy Pop, is just “The same old thing in brand new drag” ‑ the usual contents of experiences but put together in unusual, arbitrary combinations. It has all the impact of novelty, and is typified by the kind of poetry that juxtaposes a zebra, a hypodermic syringe, an orange and a stick of underarm deodorant. 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. In other words, imagination selects and transforms the data of experience, giving it new depth and purchase. … to illuminate 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 reminded me of a passage, in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which has remained with me ever since I read it more than 30 years ago. He makes a distinction between 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. [Such stimuli invite you to become] actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’ . . . by becoming more awake and more alive.

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.

The rest of the article, to which I shall return later, concerns itself with the light which aspects of Buddhist philosophy shed on this whole problem. I shall do my best to convey what he is saying even though I’m not sure I understand it yet myself.

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As a bridge between last week’s posts on the subject of psychopathy and next week’s on the theme of poetry, it seemed a good idea to look again at a couple of posts I wrote on the relationship between creativity and psychopathology. The first was posted yesterday: this is the second and last. 

An earlier post focused on how great the gap can be between the achievement of an artist in his art and the depths to which he can sink in his life (historically it’s usually been a ‘he’). In His Writings, Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that for Bahá’ís there should be no such distance between what a person professes and how they are (Gleanings: page 305).

CXXXIX: Say: Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds.

I ended up wondering what the possible explanations for such huge gaps might be. I am most intrigued by two ways of accounting for the vast gulfs that can separate an artist’s life from his or her art: the psychological and the spiritual.

Tomalin, in her fascinating biography of Dickens, plainly felt she’d found one of the first kind. She was delighted to have been able to quote Dostoevsky’s account of his conversation with Dickens whom he met, apparently, on his visit to London in 1862. It seems to shed so much light on the relationship between the man and his art (page 322):

The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand. or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine … in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather. what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. ‘From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.’ ‘Only two people?’ I asked.

Tomalin’s comments below show that this could be gold, though it’s clear she feels the insights Dickens has shared seem slightly improbable given the slender nature of the acquaintance (ibid):

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from a part of himself that he disapproved of and yet could not control. Dostoevsky’s Dickens reminds us of Eleanor Picken‘s, now one sort of man, now another, the mood-swinging, the charm turning to aggression, the fun that gets out of hand.

In a Sunday Times article she revealed that there is now considerable doubt over the authenticity of this account and it will be relegated to a footnote in future editions. The trail back to the original documents breaks down, and Dickens was only in London for two days during the Russian novelist’s visit. They did have a common language in which to communicate though as both were proficient in French. I thought it worth including as a plausible account of how the black and white world of heroes and villains in some of Dickens’ novels could’ve been rooted in the flaws and virtues of his own character.

While Dostoevsky’s comments can be seen as describing what’s happening during the creative act, in this case of a novelist, it doesn’t really help us understand how a Dickens would have arrived at that place or why. They are compatible with those accounts which see human beings as having a dual potential: angelic and satanic. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá summarises this and we can see clearly how the spiritual, the  psychological and the creative can overlap in this domain:

What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart. But what are satanic promptings which afflict mankind? They are the influx of the heart also. How shall we differentiate between them? The question arises, How shall we know whether we are following inspiration from God or satanic promptings of the human soul?

(Foundations of World Unity: page 46-47)

These questions are crucial. The idea of ‘inspiration’ lies at the heart of our exploration of creative writing. The dual potential we find here needs some unpacking in this context. One way among many is to look at the matter of the heart which is really the heart of the matter.

Elsewhere I have dealt at some length with the concept of the heart as a mirror (see the first three links below). Various factors too complex to go into here can cause us to make two kinds of interacting mistake. We can turn the mirror to those areas of experience that degrade us as human beings: that’s the first mistake. Then we can also identify with what we experience reflected in our heart: that is the second and by far the greater mistake. To do so can make a mistake even out of reflecting higher things because we come to think that we are what we are turned towards and become proud of the glory we find there as though it were our own.

The character of the Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear.

Earl of Gloucester is comforted after being blinded in the TNT theatre production of King Lear. (For source of image see link)

Great art is capable of reflecting both these areas of experience without making the mistake of identifying with either of them. This results in the breath-taking balance of Shakespeare’s art where he depicts evil and the suffering its causes without, in his greatest work, losing perspective and descending into a theatre of cruelty that seems to enjoy the horror. He combines compassion and detachment to an astonishing degree.

It is hard to find the man behind the characters. Perhaps we are lucky that we know so little of his true biography that we cannot expose the discrepancy between the life and the art in his case as in that of Dickens, or perhaps his life was more of a piece with his art. I’d like to think so, though recent evidence that he hoarded grain at times when people were starving suggests otherwise.

We are no nearer understanding, though, why some people identify so closely with their own narrow interests that they ride roughshod over others, either in the name of their art or simply to gratify a whim, while others can rise above their own perspective and embrace the views and needs of others with life-enhancing compassion, not just in their art but in their lives as well.

Temporary states of mind induced by periods of threat or stress are not what we’re after here. We’re looking for traits of character rather than states of mind. In that case, early experience as well as inherited temperament are bound to play a part. But is there something about high levels of creative skill that forges an inescapable life-time link with self-centredness?

Does a selfless artist seem the exception because egotism is needed before great art can emerge? How else, we might ask, is a genius going to persist so obsessively with the thousands of hours of intensive practice that the fostering of such a gift requires (see link below to post about effort)? The high levels of drive that seem so essential to great success in any field in our society seem to correlate with a high degree of self-centredness. But is that just because we live in a culture that cultivates and rewards the ruthlessly competitive?

It is perhaps impossible to prove it either way at this point in human history. Maitreyabandhu, whom I have quoted at length in two previous posts (see last two in the list below), has a subtle take on this whole issue that suggests that this binding chain is not only breakable, it may even be undermining an artist’s ability to rise to the highest levels of achivement in his or her chosen field.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in this Autumn’s Poetry Review 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.

The Kellys derive a similar idea from Myers when they speak of ‘subliminal uprush.’ If we are to move as a species from our present level of functioning, both as individuals and as societies, it is to be hoped that the vision unfolded in Maitreyabandhu’s Buddhist approach as well as those of other spiritual traditions, including that of the Bahá’í Faith, will prove within our reach. The day when great artistic skill and noble character consistently combine to produce works of uplifting genius, we will know our culture has achieved true integrity.

I believe that to be possible but I don’t for one moment  think it will be easy, so deeply are we convinced that great creativity in any field sadly but almost invariably flourishes best in the soil of extreme egotism.

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An earlier post focused on how great the gap can be between the achievement of an artist in his art and the depths to which he can sink in his life (historically it’s usually been a ‘he’). In His Writings, Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that for Bahá’ís there should be no such distance between what a person professes and how they are (Gleanings: page 305).

CXXXIX: Say: Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds.

I ended up wondering what the possible explanations for such huge gaps might be. I am most intrigued by two ways of accounting for the vast gulfs that can separate an artist’s life from his or her art: the psychological and the spiritual.

Tomalin, in her fascinating biography of Dickens, plainly felt she’d found one of the first kind. She was delighted to have been able to quote Dostoevsky’s account of his conversation with Dickens whom he met, apparently, on his visit to London in 1862. It seems to shed so much light on the relationship between the man and his art (page 322):

The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand. or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine … in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather. what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. ‘From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.’ ‘Only two people?’ I asked.

Tomalin’s comments below show that this could be gold, though it’s clear she feels the insights Dickens has shared seem slightly improbable given the slender nature of the acquaintance (ibid):

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from a part of himself that he disapproved of and yet could not control. Dostoevsky’s Dickens reminds us of Eleanor Picken‘s, now one sort of man, now another, the mood-swinging, the charm turning to aggression, the fun that gets out of hand.

In a Sunday Times article she revealed that there is now considerable doubt over the authenticity of this account and it will be relegated to a footnote in future editions. The trail back to the original documents breaks down, and Dickens was only in London for two days during the Russian novelist’s visit. They did have a common language in which to communicate though as both were proficient in French. I thought it worth including as a plausible account of how the black and white world of heroes and villains in some of Dickens’ novels could’ve been rooted in the flaws and virtues of his own character.

While Dostoevsky’s comments can be seen as describing what’s happening during the creative act, in this case of a novelist, it doesn’t really help us understand how a Dickens would have arrived at that place or why. They are compatible with those accounts which see human beings as having a dual potential: angelic and satanic. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá summarises this and we can see clearly how the spiritual, the  psychological and the creative can overlap in this domain:

What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart. But what are satanic promptings which afflict mankind? They are the influx of the heart also. How shall we differentiate between them? The question arises, How shall we know whether we are following inspiration from God or satanic promptings of the human soul?

(Foundations of World Unity: page 46-47)

These questions are crucial. The idea of ‘inspiration’ lies at the heart of our exploration of creative writing. The dual potential we find here needs some unpacking in this context. One way among many is to look at the matter of the heart which is really the heart of the matter.

Elsewhere I have dealt at some length with the concept of the heart as a mirror (see the first three links below). Various factors too complex to go into here can cause us to make two kinds of interacting mistake. We can turn the mirror to those areas of experience that degrade us as human beings: that’s the first mistake. Then we can also identify with what we experience reflected in our heart: that is the second and by far the greater mistake. To do so can make a mistake even out of reflecting higher things because we come to think that we are what we are turned towards and become proud of the glory we find there as though it were our own.

King Lear in the Storm

Great art is capable of reflecting both these areas of experience without making the mistake of identifying with either of them. This results in the breath-taking balance of Shakespeare’s art where he depicts evil and the suffering its causes without, in his greatest work, losing perspective and descending into a theatre of cruelty that seems to enjoy the horror. He combines compassion and detachment to an astonishing degree.

It is hard to find the man behind the characters. Perhaps we are lucky that we know so little of his true biography that we cannot expose the discrepancy between the life and the art in his case as in that of Dickens, or perhaps his life was more of a piece with his art. I’d like to think so.

We are no nearer understanding, though, why some people identify so closely with their own narrow interests that they ride roughshod over others, either in the name of their art or simply to gratify a whim, while others can rise above their own perspective and embrace the views and needs of others with life-enhancing compassion, not just in their art but in their lives as well.

Temporary states of mind induced by periods of threat or stress are not what we’re after here. We’re looking for traits of character rather than states of mind. In that case, early experience as well as inherited temperament are bound to play a part. But is there something about high levels of creative skill that forges an inescapable life-time link with self-centredness?

Does a selfless artist seem the exception because egotism is needed before great art can emerge? How else, we might ask, is a genius going to persist so obsessively with the thousands of hours of intensive practice that the fostering of such a gift requires (see link below to post about effort)? The high levels of drive that seem so essential to great success in any field in our society seem to correlate with a high degree of self-centredness. But is that just because we live in a culture that cultivates and rewards the ruthlessly competitive?

It is perhaps impossible to prove it either way at this point in human history. Maitreyabandhu, whom I have quoted at length in two previous posts (see last two in the list below), has a subtle take on this whole issue that suggests that this binding chain is not only breakable, it may even be undermining an artist’s ability to rise to the highest  levels of achivement in his or her chosen field.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in this Autumn’s Poetry Review 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.

If we are to move as a species from our present level of functioning, both as individuals and as societies, it is to be hoped that the vision unfolded in Maitreyabandhu’s Buddhist approach as well as those of other spiritual traditions, including that of the Bahá’í Faith, will prove within our reach. The day when great artistic skill and noble character consistently combine to produce works of uplifting genius, we will know our culture has achieved true integrity.

I believe that to be possible but I don’t for one moment  think it will be easy, so deeply are we convinced that great creativity in any field sadly but almost invariably flourishes best in the soil of extreme egotism.

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DH Maitreyabandhu

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

(The Master & his Emissary: page 115)

Right now I am deeply grateful to someone whom I had never heard of two weeks ago.

As part of my recent plan to re-engage more with poetry, I rejoined the Poetry Society, and already I am glad I did. The last issue of their magazine contains a profound article by Maitreyabandhu.

Alison Flood wrote in the Guardian in 2009:

Maitreyabandhu, who has been ordained into the Western Buddhist Order for 19 years, says his love of poetry began when a friend read him the first five verses of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. “It was one of those moments when one discovers a new ecstasy, even a new calling. After that I read and re-read Shelley and Keats obsessively and used their poetry to explore ancient Buddhist themes,” he said. “WH Auden says, ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us’. The same could be said of Buddhism. I approach poetry, in one sense as a distillation of peak experience, in another as finding meaning in the everyday – as such, poetry has become another strand of my spiritual practice.”

In the two years since then he has moved to a place from which he can write about poetry and spirituality with a degree of wisdom I have rarely encountered before. He is grappling with a set of interrelated issues that have preoccupied me for many years: the value of imagination, the nature of creativity and its relationship with compassion, the purpose and nature of poetry and the light all of this might shed on mind/brain processes. I have achieved some clarity about some of that but the angle that he views these issues from will be invaluable in moving my thinking forwards, I suspect. (For more on some of my own struggles so far see the links at the bottom of the page.)

I have long been aware that imagination, rather like fire, is a good friend but a dangerous enemy. I remember vaguely, from my days as a student of English Literature, Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination. I have pondered on the dichotomy the Bahá’í scriptures point up. On the one hand we have imagination as a power of the human spirit as described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

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

(Some Answered Questions: page 210)

On the other hand, we have ‘vain imaginings’ that are not to be trusted.

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.

(Tablets of  Bahá’u’lláh: page 58)

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges?

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. 1 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. . . . .  Fancy, to use the words of Iggy Pop, is just “The same old thing in brand new drag” ‑ the usual contents of experiences but put together in unusual, arbitrary combinations. It has all the impact of novelty, and is typified by the kind of poetry that juxtaposes a zebra, a hypodermic syringe, an orange and a stick of underarm deodorant. 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. In other words, imagination selects and transforms the data of experience, giving it new depth and purchase. … to illuminate 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 reminded me of a passage, in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which has remained with me ever since I read it more than 30 years ago. He makes a distinction between 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. [Such stimuli invite you to become] actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’ . . . by becoming more awake and more alive.

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.

The rest of the article, to which I shall return later, concerns itself with the light which aspects of Buddhist philosophy shed on this whole problem. I shall do my best to convey what he is saying even though I’m not sure I understand it yet myself.

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