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Posts Tagged ‘Irreducible Mind’

Glass table with book & VG

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

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

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

Getting a Feel for van Gogh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth, the Man and the Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside his Mind

Let me unpack that a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2305

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'The False Mirror' by René Magritte

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

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

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

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

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

Myers’s Psychology of Creative Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myers is more cautious about Blake (page 445):

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

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

'The Pleasure Principle' by René Magritte

‘The Pleasure Principle’ by René Magritte

Transpersonal Roots of Genius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolutionary Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crucial caveat

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

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

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

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

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

‘Good for them,’ I say.

'The Ready-Made Bouquet' by René Magritte

‘The Ready-Made Bouquet’ by René Magritte

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'Perspicacity' by René Magritte (adapted from 'Magritte' in the Taschen Edition

‘Perspicacity’ by René Magritte (adapted from Magritte by Marcel Paquet  in the Taschen Edition)

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

John Keats – Ode on a Grecian Urn

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

Having now finished my first complete reading of Irreducible Mind, I would like to tackle, in two stages, the subject of genius as the book presents Myers’s version.

The first stage is to look at why we should believe something special is going on, and the second stage will be to look at why we might entertain the idea that the work of genius comes from a transcendent process. It is in this second part that I will return to at least some of the evolutionary implications that an earlier post touched upon.

The Trap of Methodolatry

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.

It is in the expression ‘profounder regions of his being’ that the main contentious issue resides. At this stage we are only concerned with providing reasons to accept that genius is something special, not easily reducible to common or garden conscious processes. The next post will deal with the more difficult step.

Theories prevalent in the early years of the last century provide non-transcendent ways of addressing this which are, the authors argue, widely accepted in general terms (page 428):

Original formulation of a four phase model Graham Wallas (1926) – more fully developed version Eliot Dole Hutchinson (1931: 1939). The stages are:

  1. preparation;
  2. incubation;
  3. illumination; and
  4. verification.

Briefly, preparation refers primarily to the initial stages of intense voluntary effort on a particular work or problem. . . . . If this initial effort fails, the work or problem may temporarily be put aside in frustration, this being the stage of incubation… in which conscious effort seems to be largely or wholly absent. Something more than simple rest or dissipation of inhibitions seems to be involved during the incubation period, for then comes illumination, inspiration, or insight, in which radically new ideas intrude into consciousness, often suddenly, copiously, and with strong accompanying affect. This leads to a further stage of voluntary effort, verification, in which the new material may be evaluated, elaborated, and worked into the structure of the evolving product.

Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso, the authors of this chapter, acknowledge that this is not a strict sequence and there may be overlaps and recursions. A creative friend in a Facebook post also mentions the idea of a fallow period where nothing much seems to be going on while the soil recovers. He implies this is not the same as incubation, more a period where nothing has been primed so no seeds are germinating.

There are the obstinate few who do not accept this model in any form and wish to ‘deny that genius ever depends upon or utilises any special sort of “unconscious” work’ (ibid.):

Nothing more is involved, on this view, then unusually tenacious, discipline, and incremental application of cognitive processes of the ordinary sort.

haroldbloom

Harold Bloom (for source of image see link)

The evidence in support of the dissenters has for the most part been generated in the laboratory where (pages 428-29) ‘incubation and illumination cannot readily and reliably be evoked.”

They come to the crunch, barely concealing their contempt for this dismissive line of argument which also infects ‘literary scholars’ it seems (page 429):

[W]ith all due respect, this “nothing-special” view of genius seems to us a particularly egregious example of “methodolatry” . . . . The unwillingness of many modern literary scholars to confront genius in its full-blown phenomenological reality has recently provoked Harold Bloom (2002) to castigate them as “cultural levellers, quite immune from awe,” and in our view that judgement applies equally here.

The Roots of Genius in the Unconscious

In the end, then, I am with them in feeling that much of significance in the process of creating works of genius proceeds unconsciously. This could of course lead to another form of debasing reductionism. The Freudian distinction between Primary (pre-verbal, dreamlike) and Secondary (rational, verbal) Processes is a case in point but they feel it does not meet the challenges involved (page 458):

Primary process is no longer conceived as rigidly distinct from and opposed to secondary process, or as a mere slave of the Freudian unconscious – that boiling cesspool of primitive sexual and aggressive urges. Rather, it represents a distinctive mode of cognition existing alongside secondary process, complementary to and interactive with it, and potentially available in service of creative activities.

It is tempting here to delve back into McGilchrist’s exploration of the two hemispheres of the brain. Instead, to point up the possibilities of this, I’ll restrict myself to a short quote and a link back to my review of his book (page 203):

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. In this sense the ‘givens’ of the left hemisphere need to be once again ‘given up’ to be reunified through the operations of the right hemisphere. . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.

Nor are we to suppose that genius is merely a whisker away from insanity, an idea that the 19th Century thinkers often toyed with (page 459):

“Inspiration – the ‘divine release from the ordinary ways of man,’ a state of ‘creative madness’ (Plato), in which the ego controls the primary process and puts it into its service – need to be contrasted with the opposite, the psychotic condition, in which the ego is overwhelmed by the primary process.”

Myers had little patience with those in the 19th Century who conflated genius and madness and subscribed to a ‘degeneracy’ theory. However, he did manage to sift some flecks of truth from its silt (page 471):

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

I have already looked in more detail at the idea of genius as the norm of the future in a previous post.

William James is even more nuanced (ibid.):

Against any presumption that hallucinations are invariably diagnostic for psychopathology, for example, James pointed to the demonstrations by Myers and his colleagues that waking hallucinations are not uncommon in the lives of otherwise normal persons. Secondly, there are many examples of geniuses, even poetic geniuses, who were paragons of balance and stability. . . . Madness therefore is certainly not necessary for genius, although it may sometimes combine with intellect and will to produce it. What madness provides in such cases – what really is necessary, and can also occur in its absence – is uprushes from the “seething cauldron” of the subliminal, as described by Myers.

They deal at some length with the various attempts that have continued to be made to link creativity and mental ill health, before expressing their measured take on the issue (page 473):

Most importantly, a central recurring theme amidst all the reported psychopathology is its coexistence with unusual levels of ego strength, manifested in characteristics such as industry, drive, perseverance, organisation, discipline, independence of judgement, tolerance of ambiguity and frustration, and determination to master the subject at hand using any available means of expression.

They draw in Jamison quoting Heaney on the bipolar Robert Lowell (page 474):

[Lowell] had in awesome abundance the poet’s first gift for surrender to those images of language that heave to the fore matter that will not be otherwise summoned, all that might be otherwise suppressed. Under the ray of his concentration, the molten stuff of the psyche ran hot and unstaunched. But its final form was as much beaten as poured, the cooling ingot was assiduously hammered. A fully human and relentless intelligence was at work upon the pleasuring quick of the creative act.

1024px-Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1979,_MiNr_2409

For source of image see link

Where next?

Tackling another bastion of reductionism, they explain at some length what they feel are the insuperable deficiencies of the computer-based cognitive explanations of creativity which is any case a lower form of activity than genius.

Of far greater concern to them is the key importance of imagination, imagery and primary process to our efforts to penetrate more deeply beneath the glittering surfaces of things as they seem. We have mentioned this as part of the post about the evolutionary implications of genius.

Now is the time to begin to go deeper (page 467):

. . . . in the most important cases the subject being construed or expressed may itself only become known, at least better known, as a result of [a] symbolic process. Bowra (1955) nicely captures this in his continuing description of creative inspiration: “what begins by being almost unconscious becomes conscious; what is at the start an outburst of energy infused with a vague idea or an undifferentiated vision becomes concrete and definite; what is outside the poet’s control is gradually made to submit to his will and judgement.”

Imagery, as I have suggested elsewhere, mediates between the expressible and the ineffable.

There are cases of where dreams contain the solution to a problem that has long been wrestled with (see link for more examples):

Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, the formation of chemical/organic “Structure Theory”, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. He had a dream!

I have explored this in far more detail elsewhere on this blog.

It is a short step now to the theme of the next post. A kind of Platonism prepares us to begin a consideration of the transpersonal roots of genius (page 486):

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

I will come back to the further implications of all this in the next post.

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

Genius as the Norm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoghi Effendi

For source of image see link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could this work?

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

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

For source of image see link.

Carl Jung. For source of image see link.

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

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

What might some of those procedures be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerard Manley Hopkins. For source of image see link.

Gerard Manley Hopkins. For source of image see link.

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

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

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

Coda

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

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

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

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

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Glass table with book & VG

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

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

Given the latest sequence on creativity, suffering and mental health, and its references to Van Gogh, I simply had to republish this sequence yet again This is the first of five posts which will be posted daily over the next four days.

Getting a Feel for van Gogh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth, the Man and the Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside his Mind

Let me unpack that a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2305

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

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

assagioli

As I’m embarking on another overview of subpersonalities, inner unity and disidentification in the context of transpersonal psychology, it seems a good idea to pull together a number of related posts to run alongside. So here comes the third republication of this sequence, this time on three consecutive days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separating the Mirror from its Reflections

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

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

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

Myers’s the self and the Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

titania-l

Midsummer Night’s Dream

Thin Partitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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