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Posts Tagged ‘John Keats’

Cronin Beckett

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

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

Both because I am about to revisit the purpose of literature in terms of poetry this time, and because it involves discussing the kind of bleakness this sequence references, it seemed doubly appropriate to republish it so soon after the last time, earlier this year. It is coming out on consecutive days.

At the end of the last post there was a pointer to suggest that it would not be wise to adopt a simplistic approach to Beckett, the man. Cronin, his biographer, had met met Beckett and what he found surprised him (pages 478-79) because ‘the powerful impact of his work’ conveyed ‘an impression of rejection of the world’s affairs and even of its comforts, a sardonic asceticism if not quite a saintly resignation.’ In addition, ‘there was a growing legend of an enigma, a solitary who despised or was indifferent to the joys, such as they were, of ordinary human association.’ And what happened? Cronin states ‘I met instead an agreeable, courteous, indeed almost affable man.’

There does seem a consensus, though, that his later writings at least are unremittingly bleak.

Beckett

The dark side of Beckett’s life was very much reflected in his work.

At the very beginning, when Beckett was transitioning from religion to writing, there was a soon to be eradicated tinge of transcendence (page 147):

[Of his book on Proust Cronin writes that] Although this opportunity to attribute a transcendental belief to Proust is passed up there is certainly a general impression of an attitude to art which partakes of a sort of religious fervour, or rather an attempt to make a sort of surrogate religion art. This attempt is not uncommon among hitherto religious young people who discover art at the same time as they are in the process of abandoning religion.

It didn’t take long before his inherent pessimism kicked this into touch (page 307):

In his vision at its starkest, nothing really changes. As one cause succeeds another, calling for meaningless loyalties and betrayals, we get deeper into the mire. ‘We belong to suffering,’ [says one of his characters].

This was made even more painful in what he saw (page 398) ‘as the artist’s special burden and torment, the categorical imperative to create when combined with the impossibility of creation.’ The effect of this take on creativity was not all bad though (page 374) in the sense that ‘in the work of no other author does hatred for the necessity of creating a fiction shine through so clearly or is the detestation of that necessity expressed with so mordant a wit.’

Kenneth Tynan expressed the opinion (page 448) that ‘for the author of Godot’ passing the time in the dark ‘is not only what drama is about but also what life is about.’

Perhaps the most important factor in shaping Beckett’s art was his insight, after his unpublished early work, that (page 359) ‘instead of writing about that exterior world he should have written about the inner world, with its darkness, its ignorance, its uncertainty.’

Beckett playsOthers, such as Proust, Joyce and Woolf, made the same choice, without ending up in the same place as Beckett did. His decision carried other complicating factors that impacted upon the pattern of his writing:

From this point on there would be an entire abandonment of pretence of any kind, including the ordinary fictive pretences of plot, a total renunciation of all certainties, including philosophic certainties of any kind; and there would instead be a reiteration of ignorance, a restitution to their rightful place in his work of the uncertainties and confusion of which life was made up.

This almost inevitably meant that ‘the mode for such a reiteration and restitution would be the only possible one: first person monologue.’

The bleak legacy of his vision of life did not stop there (page 364): ‘something else would now be banished besides plot and description – something that might be called the hope of salvation.’ And this banishment was unqualified (page 365 – my emphasis) for ‘in the novels and plays Beckett was to write there would be neither the hope nor the fear of any outcome.… Nobody would be found wanting because all Beckett’s characters have already been found wanting. There is no hope for them.’

Cronin has no problem with where this takes us (pages 378-79:

. . . reduced as his characters are to the extreme simplicities of need and satisfaction, indeed by virtue of the fact that they are so reduced, Beckett does succeed in laying bare much of the reality of human situation as well as the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions.

He seems to accept that life is as meaningless as Beckett felt it was. We’re in the realm of extreme existentialism here: life is meaningless even though we cannot help creating meanings to help us live.

He endorses Beckett’s vision as more authentic than most of the work that preceded him (page 383): ‘. . . one could argue that the Beckett man, in all his abysmal aspects, is ‘truer’ to humanity’s real lineaments than most of what has gone before.’ His conclusion is that (page 384):

For 3000 years the bias of literature had been tilted one way, towards the heroic and the lyrical-poetic. Now it has been tilted the other, a process which began with the appearance of the first modern anti-heroes and culminated in Beckett.

Even at this point, such a position runs into serious problems. For example, Cronin lauds Beckett for his honourable uncertainty. Such a degree of uncertainty would be incompatible with a belief that all is meaningless. We may not be able to reach a firm conclusion that there is a meaning and decide definitely what that meaning is, but we would similarly not be able to conclude there is no meaning at all. A secondary problem is that someone’s position of stoic nihilism dismisses the rest of us as deluded and contains more than a hint of arrogance. I am all in favour of Keats’ doctrine of ‘negative capability’ and the need to resist ‘irritably reaching after fact,’ but that is not the same thing as nihilism at all. I will be returning to an examination of this later in the sequence.

Beckett Novels

It is interesting that Rilke, one of my solitarios, confronted his inner emptiness and, according to Robert Hass in his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations of the poems (page xvi), sought ‘to find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency, of human longing into something else.’

Probably the simplest summing up comes towards the end of the book (page 451) When Cronin writes that, in a review, René Lalou lists those critics ‘who had been among the first to hail Waiting for Godot’and ‘proclaim the value of this tragedy of despair not even lit by a glimmer of consciousness.’ Lalou referred to Beckett’s ‘constant use of monologue as an artistic technique, his implacably pessimistic vision and his insistence on the degrading functions of the human body.’

A few additional points may again be worth making.

The first of these paves the way towards Proust (page 182)

. . . few things are more striking about Beckett than his willingness to abandon himself to the life of memory, both in young manhood and later on. Most of the events of life may have been ‘occasions of fiasco’ as they occurred; but the subsequent remembrance of them was nevertheless more tolerable than present existence could ever be.

The second simply amplifies on the dilemma residing in his persistent creativity in the face of his sceptical pessimism (page 375): ‘ The object of the fiction must be truth of some sort; but by definition it is necessarily a lie.’

The last idea points to where he is absolutely different from Proust (page 376):

He yearned for silence, the blank white page, the most perfect thing of all. . . [He felt] more intensely than others that the object of true, achieved and necessary utterance is silence…

The consequence of this being that (pages 376-77) ‘his works would after a certain point get shorter and shorter.’

Night at the MajesticProust

Proust’s relationship with his writing was perceived by his contemporaries as damaging (page 284) in that Dr Maurice Bize felt that ‘Proust was killing himself by overwork,’ and he is reported to have said to his servant, Céleste, (page 303) ‘only when I have finished my work, will I start looking after myself.’ This attitude extended to the minor aspects of self-care as well. Jaloux (page 304) spoke of Proust’s ‘miserable little under-furnished room that testified to his indifference to comfort.’ François Mauriac expressed it rather dramatically in saying (page 305) ‘We must reflect on the extraordinary fate of a creator who was devoured by his own creation…’

His aim was to focus almost exclusively on his writing after his mother’s death (page 83) when he:

sought (during the seventeen years of life that remained to him) to confine himself in a Noah’s Ark of his own devising. . . His life in the Ark helped to preserve the immediacy of his vision of people, objects and sensations.

He (page 91) ‘believed it was the only way he could discover the meaning beneath appearances: that is, to create great art.’

His most celebrated contribution to the novel are his madeleine moments, when a sensation such as taste can trigger a flood of memories (page 98):

These sudden intuitions of a moment are presented with pictorial vividness, and were intended to be as beautiful and suggestive as Old Master paintings… [They] were tantamount to a series of religious revelations, as Middleton Murray wrote in a tribute after Proust’s death, ‘this modern of the moderns . . . had a mystical strain in his composition.

In that sense he is inspiring the work of Joyce, Beckett and Woolf, fellow explorers of the recesses of consciousness.

LehrerJonah Lehrer, in his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, focuses his discussion of Proust particularly on this part of his legacy. He explains that Proust (page 77) believed that ‘only the artist was able to describe reality as it was actually experienced’ and that (page 78) ‘the nineteenth century novel, with its privileging of things over thoughts, had everything exactly backward.’ Proust had concluded that (page 81) ‘only by meticulously retracing the loom of our neural connections… can we understand ourselves, for we are our loom, adding that ‘Proust gleaned all of this wisdom from an afternoon tea.’

Proust was ahead of his time, Lehrer argues, in other ways as well. He believed that (page 82) ‘our recollections were phoney. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications. Take the madeleine. Proust realised that the moment we finished eating the cookie,… we begin working the memory of the cookie to fit our own personal narrative.’ Lehrer contends that (page 85) ‘Proust presciently anticipated the discovery of memory reconsolidation. For him, memories were like sentences: they were things you never stopped changing.’ Lehrer quotes the incontrovertible evidence that our memories are subject to constant editing and reediting.

Richard Davenport-Hines essentially concurs (page 128), quoting Proust when he wrote ‘the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths…’

There are other characteristics of Proust’s art that need adding into this mix. Davenport-Hines feels (page 103) that:

Temps Perdu is the work of an implacable and often anguished moralist who scorned the ways that people‘s conversation and behaviour were usually directed, regardless of their class, by neither the desire to be good nor to be truthful, but by the wish to affirm by their words the sort of people they wanted to be taken for.

He clinically dissects his contemporary world (page 104) ‘in scenes of social comedy and of moral tragedy.’ Proust exposed ‘the babbling, hypocritical, corrupt, decadent tendencies – the negative mass psychology – of his secularised age.’

Davenport-Hines sees Proust’s treatment of homosexuality as a trope (page 139) in that ‘Temps Perdu. . . placed homosexuality more centrally in human experience than any previous novel or treatise, and used it to demonstrate the degenerative squalor of human emotions,’ and used it as (page 183) ‘a secularised representation of humankind‘s fall from grace.’ It was a brave move to make at that point in history, and Proust was anxious about its impact on the acceptance of his novel and his own reputation after the publication of the fourth volume of his sequence. His choice would be viewed rather differently were he writing now.

His jaundiced view of humanity was not confined to sexuality though, it seems (page 216) given that, as Davenport-Hines argues ‘his interests focused on degenerative processes. His fiction is a prolonged study of class degeneration, of moral degeneration and of physical degeneration.’

This helicopter view of their lives and art leaves us with a number of serious questions. These will have to wait till next time. A key one will relate to whether their take on reality is somehow skewed or biased, in a way that makes it seriously incomplete.

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Tree roots

Tree Roots & Trunks

Though I cannot predict what I shall be able to do, I hope to make a few sketches with perhaps something human in them…

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – 4 September 1880 (page 82)

I don’t think I have ever republished a sequence so quickly, but last Monday’s post has hopefully made it glaringly obvious why I have felt compelled to do so this time. This is the third of five posts the rest of which will be posted daily over the next two days. 

Having tried to tune into van Gogh’s thinking about his art and attempting to dispose of the suicide myth, it’s time to share my immediate responses to some of the paintings.

The Paintings At Last

This now brings me to what these posts have to deal with at some point: the art itself and its impact on the mind.

What is my response to his paintings?

I’ll need to fess up to other influences than his letters before tackling my own raw responses on that day in the museum when I stood before the unmediated art – not photographs in a book, not a commentary by a critic, not a documentary however well-informed.

There’s Schama for a start. His book, Power of Art, was a retirement gift. It’s been on my shelves since 2008. I don’t read books like this cover-to-cover. I dip into them when the mood overtakes me. Van Gogh, Caravaggio and Rembrandt were early reads. This is his take on Tree Roots & Trunks (1890, and probably Van Gogh’s last painting, taken to be unfinished – the picture is scanned, as are all the other paintings throughout, from the Taschen book, page 693, and the quote is from Schama, page 346):

[This] may well be another view from inside Vincent’s hectic brain: all knots and strangling thickets, knobbly growths, bolting ganglia, claw-like forms, and pincers the look more skeletal than botanical . . . . . But this amazing painting – one of the very greatest (and least noticed) masterpieces from the founding moment of modernism – is yet another experiment in the independent vitality of painted line and colour, as well as the uncontainable force of nature.

You get the drift.

VG posterInterestingly, when an art therapy friend of mine and I compared notes after seeing the documentary Vincent van Gogh: a new way of seeing, we both felt this painting, which featured strongly in the film, carried a sense that he was trying to go back to his roots in order to refresh his vision of what he was doing. There is though something both menacing and incoherent about it when seen in its original that is somehow lost in reproduction. This is partly because of its size, which is almost exactly the same as the huge canvas of Wheatfield with Crows. You feel as though you are about to get lost in the tangle of it all, painted as it is on a canvas that would do justice to a jungle.

The Taschen Edition, which I really like as well, is equally confident of its position. At the start of their book they choose to discuss his paintings of two chairs – his own and Gauguin’s while he stayed with him (pages 7-8):

The two paintings are his statement of the friendship of two artists. His own chair, simple and none too comfortable, with his dearly-loved pipe lying on it, stands for the artist himself. It is meant just as metaphorically as the more elegant, comfortable armchair where Gauguin liked to settle. Everyday things, purely functional objects, acquire a symbolic power. The eye of love sees the mere thing as representing the man who uses it quite matter-of-factly. We may well be tempted to recall the pictorial tradition that provided van Gogh with his earliest artistic impressions. . . . . . Van Gogh’s unoccupied chairs pay respect to a tendency to avoid representation of the human figure. Gauguin is there, sitting in his armchair, even if we cannot see him – according to this formula.

This is a more knowing art-scholar take on the paintings, though they certainly agree with Schama’s sense of van Gogh as a founder of modernism, though their reasons are very much their own (page 698):

[H]e wanted to pave the way for . . . . that societal power which he was convinced lay with the common people.

It is this that makes van Gogh the forerunner par excellence of Modernism, or at any rate of the Modernist avant-garde.

We will be coming back to his ideas about the role of art in society. They seem to me to include but go beyond simply being a positive social influence.

I can’t compete with either Schama’s panache or Walther and Metzger’s confident expertise. I have to find a way of stepping back from his breathless and their measured perspectives.

There’s no way either I can attempt to capture and record here my responses to the approximately 200 images housed in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, so I have decided to focus on four paintings only. I realise from what van Gogh wrote in his letters that he saw his paintings as best experienced in groups – sunflowers, rooms and furniture, portraits, blossoms, cornfields and so on. However, that would further complicate a task I think is a bit too ambitious as it is.

Anyway, I’ll take a deep breath and plunge into the paintings I’ve chosen to focus on which are:

  1. Harvest at La Crau (1888 – page 347);
  2. Blossoming Almond Tree (February 1890 – page 615).
  3. Cypresses and Two Women (February 1890 – page 619);
  4. Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background (May 1890 – page 622).

I realise that there are no portraits in this list, even though this was an important art form for van Gogh. However, of his three great loves – literature, nature and those who worked the land – I decided to focus on paintings of nature. Portraits would have needed to be dealt with separately.

Harvest

First we come to Harvest at La Crau (June 1888 – page 347).

One of the most striking things about this painting are the tiny figures. He saw those who worked the land as infused by nature but also scarred by the hardships they endured as a result. Many of his paintings focused on the demands of such labour and the toll it took.

This painting makes a similar point by dwarfing the figures in the landscape.

The painting was created before 23 December 1888, when the rift with Gauguin, and all the attendant razor wielding and ear-shredding traumas, irreversibly clouded the landscape of his mind and began to fuel our 125-year-old Van Gogh legend.

The colours are bright and the feel is positive. There is a sense of activity within a sustaining environment. There is also clearly present what came to be the characteristic vibration of the van Gogh brushwork.

Standing in front of the painting I could not escape a sense of the seasons with all the reminders of Keats, whose death cut short the promise of his genius even earlier and of whose existence van Gogh was also clearly aware given his use of two of Keats’s poems in his flirtation with the married Caroline Haanebeek (Van Gogh: The Life – page 89).

Yes, this is summer – blissful, light, warm – bringing with it glowing rewards for all that has been endured in winter. There is the promise of a rich harvest, which none the less will entail back-breaking labour to bring in. The huge difference between the tiny figures and the vast landscape serves to reinforce the magnitude of that cost, something which, at that point in human history before the large-scale mechanisation of farming, had to be paid, year on year.

The brooding of the hills in the background, and an awareness of the work that is to come, cannot mar the joy of this golden moment. Although death is a distant prospect, it is not undetectable in this painting.

Those were my immediate reactions to this particular painting.

After commenting on all these four paintings I’ll use the final sections of this sequence of posts to test out some more general conclusions in the light of the Letters as a whole once I have read them to the end. They may confirm my immediate intuitions or undermine them completely. I’m not sure yet which way that will go.

Blossoming Almond Tree VG 1890

Then we have Blossoming Almond Tree (February 1890 – page 615). Though the emotional pain of the break up with Gauguin, and the death of his dream of creating a commune of artists, cast a long shadow over van Gogh for the remainder of his life, and triggered his psychiatric hospitalisations, this gift to his newly-born nephew was a rare but splendid moment of relief. The beauty of nature seems to have broken through to be captured in this picture.

The painting, for all its deceptive simplicity, is powerful.

One part of its effect is in the angle of view. I was looking straight at the picture in the gallery, my head level. What I saw was a vision of the sky through blossom. That’s a very suggestive dislocation, as though the heavens are within reach from ground level if we just direct our gaze appropriately. The effect was so strong that I felt a faint sense of the crick in my neck that would’ve ensued at my age, were I to gaze at the sky for any length of time. The blending of the green of plants into the ethereal blue of the sky adds to this sense of their ultimate interconnectedness, for me at least.

Again I couldn’t escape a sense of the seasons, winter’s grip easing as the days lengthen and the skies brighten.

And the Japanese influence is strongly present. Van Gogh resonated strongly to their style as his letters testify. He had even (Letters – page 356) ‘sent Gauguin a portrait of himself as a “bonze” (a Japanese priest).’

The delicate blossom and the gnarled branches also provide a thought-provoking contrast. It suggests, amongst other things, that beauty has a price. It is paid for by the endurance of hardship. I cannot resist quoting at this point, rather than at the end, where perhaps it belongs, what van Gogh wrote to his brother just two years before this was painted (Letters – page 381):

The more wasted and sick I become, a broken pitcher, the more I may also become a creative artist in this great renaissance of art of which we speak.

All this is certainly so, but eternally continuing art, and this renaissance – this green shoot sprung from the roots of the old sawn-off trunk, these are matters so spiritual that we can’t help but feel rather melancholy when we reflect that we could have created life for less than the cost of creating art.

The whole experience of these galleries created in me a strong sense that van Gogh is a poet in paint, and that his paintings repay the same kind of close detailed attention as poems have always done for me. And this does not mean I have to understand as fully as I would like all the technical aspects of his craft. Not that I’m convinced that van Gogh himself would’ve been delighted with the poet of paint idea. In a letter of 1888, in which coincidentally, he mentions cypresses, he goes on to protest (page 402):

It always seems to me that poetry is more terrible than painting, although painting is dirtier and ultimately more tedious. And the painter on the whole says nothing, he holds his tongue, and I prefer that too.

Rembrandt, interestingly, is more a dramatist in paint for me, which is one of the reasons I see him as the Shakespeare of pictorial art.

Cypresses and Two Women VG 1890Now it’s the turn of Cypresses and Two Women (February 1890 – page 619). Almost the first association I had with this picture as I stood before it was a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act II Scene 4). The first lines are:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.

The notes (page 667) to Jonathan Bates’s William Shakespeare: complete works explains the reference to cypress as to either a cypress wood coffin or sprigs of cypress: either way the tree is associated with mourning. This association inevitably influences my experience of the painting.

I know van Gogh admired Shakespeare greatly and was familiar with a number of his plays, but not this one as far as I can tell from the books I have at hand. So, would he be aware of the link between cypress and mourning? I don’t know but I don’t think it matters. Darkness has returned.

The women are clearly dwarfed by the tall and swirling trees. They also appear to be faceless. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the picture surprised me by how small it was (43.5 x 27 cm) – not much bigger than a sheet of foolscap. I had expected a much larger canvas. This means that the trees feel about the size that people should be, and the women seem disproportionately tiny by comparison. That the taller tree is cropped at the top gives the impression of even greater height.

Given the colour of what seems to be corn, I found it hard to resist the idea of flames. This in turn led me to see the swirls of the cypresses also as flame-like, as well, possibly, as the clouds. I am aware that van Gogh sought to capture the effects of the wind in this way, and when the mistral blew its impact was dramatic. The women appear about to be engulfed by flame. That their feet and lower legs are either cropped or their dresses are blending with the vegetation, gives the impression perhaps that the consuming process has begun.

That just about captures my immediate responses on the day, barely registered before I swept onto the next picture.

My abstracting mind can now have a field day at my desk speculating about what that all might mean. It produces more questions than answers. For example, why two women and not a woman and a man? (I think it’s a cop out to say they were the ones who happened to be there at the time. His letters indicate that he was overwhelmed by the number of possible subjects he could paint and often produced variation after variation on a theme before opting finally for two or three related versions.) Is it nature that is overwhelming human beings, or is it some other force, such as the fire of death that turns all to ash or the vibrations of the infinite sustaining consciousness for ever, that is affecting both?

Vase with Irises VG 1890

And finally we have Vase with Irises against a Yellow Background (May 1890 – page 622). This painting produced even more complex responses in me.

Brightness and the dark compete, or, perhaps more appropriately, are held in an uneasy balance. We have muted yellow in the background sinking almost to brown as it crystallises into the pot and the ledge supporting it.

The irises are dying, or at least close to the end of their lives, but still retain something of their original beauty. (A note to this painting in the gallery I think suggested that the colour of the paint had itself faded from its original blue, which would be an ironic reinforcement of my reading of the painting but may not have been part of van Gogh’s original intention, though I think the wilting stem on the right suggests otherwise.)

An association that may not have been in van Gogh’s consciousness at all is the idea of the iris as part of the eye. It controls light levels inside the eye similar to the aperture on a camera. What, if anything, are we meant to be seeing through the irises that van Gogh has provided? Are all his paintings irises in this sense?

It is also hard to escape the probability, given that he was painting this during his enforced stay in the asylum at St Rémy, that he somehow identified with the flowers, uprooted and displaced, trapped even, withering in their confinement, as he might have felt himself to be also at times.

A strong association for me is with the irises we have in our own garden, resonating with what might be a similar blue. They triggered a sombre poem of mine once (2012):

Darkening into the Night
The walls of consciousness wear thin. Yellow
roses on the window ledge are drying
to a brittle gold. The jasmine’s dying.
My eyes light on the irises outside
the colour of a late sky streaked with cloud
and pricked with stars flickering across vast
distances which stretch faster than the reach of light.
Soon I will be darkening into the night
that collapses all points into one past
which not even poetry can follow.

That the poem also contains the gold motif is uncanny. I probably retained an unconscious memory of the painting which then crept into the verse. I could substitute ‘artistry’ for ‘poetry’ in the last line and the fit would be perfect.

After reflecting in this way on these four paintings I am left with a sense that, in painting the real, van Gogh is also at the same time seeking to capture the subliminal, to fix infinity in colour and shape.

I think I will save any further thoughts until the last sections of this sequence of posts, which draw on the insights from van Gogh’s letters in an attempt to find my own way to some answers, both about his art and about the states of mind that must have helped shape them. I will defer revisiting any of my various books to see what those authors have to say until that time as well.

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When I first republished this short sequence, I was explaining that 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 so it seemed an obvious step to do the same thing again!  The first came out yesterday. This is the second and last.

In the previous post on this topic we ended with DH Maitreyabandhu‘s attempt to create a test of the value of a poem (The Furthest Reach – page 61, footnote):

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?

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

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

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

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

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

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

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

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

This, it could be said, is where I begin to lose my grip on his meaning but where I most want to grasp it fully. I want to grasp what he goes on to say because I believe – and not just because my religion says so – that religion and science are like the two wings of a bird. We need them both if we are to live wisely and well, but to use them properly we have to integrate our understanding of their different  approaches to the truth. Maybe there is a transcendent position, as Jung would say, that dissolves their apparent differences and from which we can see their essential unity. I’m not sure this is what Maitreyabandhu is getting at, but I hope so. Let’s see where he goes from here. I can already feel the rope of his meaning slipping through my fingers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still don’t feel I have completely understood all that he is trying to say but I do hope that I haven’t introduced too much distortion or dilution into my attempt to convey the tenor of his inspiring exploration of the nature of imagination and its role in poetry. I am looking forward to integrating his insights more deeply into both my practice of writing and my practice of compassion.

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JK frontispiece

Given my current drought of poems to post at the same time as I’m exploring creativity intensely, this seem a good sequence to republish. This is the last of two.

Last time we began looking at Keats’s idea of a ‘pleasure thermometer,’ which Benton, in his paper written in 1966 (Philosophy East and West V. 16 No. 1/2 (1966) pp. 33-47 Copyright 1966 by University of Hawaii Press Hawaii, USA), claims to have found in Endymion.

It is somewhat more complicated even than the idea of steps or rooms that we looked at last time.

It’s interesting that Walter Jackson Bate, as a literary critic rather than a philosophical Zen practitioner, relates to this at least in part through the idea of gradus ad Parnassum. Wikipedia explains:

The Latin phrase Gradus ad Parnassum means “Steps to Parnassus” . . .  The phrase has often been used to refer to various books of instruction, or guides, in which gradual progress in literature, language instruction, music, or the arts in general, is sought.

He also feels (page 334) that the ‘general sense’ Keats now had ‘was of a labyrinth rather than of steps,not least because of the impending darkness of his brother Tom’s deathFor reasons too complicated to unpack fully now I do not see the metaphors of ‘steps’ or of a ‘labyrinth’ as necessarily mutually exclusive: I see them as potentially complementary. The image of steps of course conveys the idea of effortful upward progression well, but a labyrinth captures the mystery of experience and how difficult it is to get our bearings and be sure we are moving in the right direction (see the poem below for my own take on the image of a labyrinth – it doesn’t stand comparison with Keats but it shows part of my own sense of the matter).

In any case, for present purposes, Keats described it, as Benton quotes from a letter of January of that same year, in terms of ‘a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth.’ Keats was ‘certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the Truth of the Imagination — what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.’

We have been here before with the Kellys’ discussion of Myers ideas of the ‘subliminal uprush’ and their description, quoted in the same post, of the inspired mathematician, Ramanujan, one of whose criteria for deciding if his equations were true was their degree of beauty. In my twenties I had dismissed the declaration in Ode to a Grecian Urn that

‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’; that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

as mere rhetoric given that much that is real in material terms, such as man’s inhumanity to man, seemed to me grotesque and ugly in the extreme, and still does of course. But that is not exactly the truth that Keats is talking about here, but my immature and disbelieving mind had no idea what he was really saying and was too skeptical to bother finding out.

Duncan Wu, in Blackwell’s excellent collection – Romanticism – explains some of its complexity (page 1011):

. . . . it is clear that by ‘beauty,’ Keats means the sensation shared by the poet with the external object into which his consciousness is merged [see below for more on this]. It is to do with the hitherto unknown reality of what it is to share in the existence of the nightingale or the Grecian urn; an imaginative involvement with those things is inherently beautiful and true – in the sense that it is real, rooted in the world of ‘misery and heartbreak, pain, sickness, and oppression.’ There is nothing escapist about any of this; indeed, the great Odes of summer 1819 are permeated with an awareness of death.

How things have changed that I can begin to see this now! I accept that I am still not completely there yet, as my posts about mindfulness are showing, but I think I’m on the way,

The Uncertainty Principle – Keatsian version

And I am now also much more in tune with Keats than was my earlier dogmatic self in another key respect, as my posts on uncertainty testify at length. According to Keats, Benton says, and as I have already quoted in part:

. . . the genuine truth seeker is a man “capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” He defines such a human quality as “Negative Capability.” This quality also involves the loss of self-identity and the submitting of oneself to things.

Benton then puts his finger on where I may be going wrong so often when I’m stuck in my quest mode (and I’ve known this for years since my exploration of Zen in the 70s but often refuse to believe it and push myself in ways I should know are unproductive).

Keats’s epistemology is very like that of Zen. According to Zen, the real is within us, so that “we lack nothing.” No deliberate effort on our part to discover the real within us is required. In fact, deliberate effort is an obstacle, since it involves an act of personal will and thus perpetuates the I-process — which is exactly what must be eliminated if the real is to be apprehended.

It’s important to understand how this differs from quest as Zen describes it:

The whole process of Zen experience therefore involves, at least according to one school of Zen thought, the stages of quest, search, ripening, and explosion, the last stage providing us with insight into the real. The restlessness of the quest stage corresponds closely to the mental condition of Keats’s man of negative capability when his mind is in a state of uncertainty, mystery, and doubt without being irritated by facts and reasoning.

The parallels don’t end there.

Zen also takes much the same attitude toward dogmatism that Keats does, being very independent and admitting “the possibility of a fundamental freedom and a non-conditionment of the mind.” The Zen patriarch Seng Ts’an advised, “Cease to cherish opinions.”

JK 1819

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

The Genuine Poetical Character

Benton has much more to say that I hope to come back to when I have explored Keats once more from my current perspective. It looks as though I completely misjudged and underestimated him in the past.

One further aspect of Benton’s perspective which I will quote now points in the direction of greater complexity than I had realized although I am not yet convinced that the exact meaning Keats intended is the same as Benton would like it to be.

He is concerned to emphasise how Keats’s creativity depended upon his loss of self:

In Keats’s view, the genuine poet is a man of a non-egotistical type whose character is opposed to “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone.” To Keats, Shakespeare was the exemplar of this non-egotistical type. The “poetical Character itself,” he declares — he means the genuine poetical character — is “not itself — it has no self — it is every thing and nothing — It has no character.” In speaking of it as having “no character,” he means that it has succeeded in extinguishing its own ego or self-identity.

Duncan Wu pins down what this characteristic of Wordsworth’s might be (ibid: page 1011): ‘. . . the tendency of Wordsworth to focus his attention on his own imaginative processes.’

Benton quotes Ode to a Nightingale in support of his point:

In Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, the nightingale itself appears to be a symbol of the larger Self that is universal and eternal in us. In Stanza VI, Keats contrasts his mortal self with the immortal Self in which he sees he can rest. He says:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

He goes on and in my view strains his argument to breaking point (but then I would think that as my earlier No-Self post indicates):

And in the next stanza, Keats defines the exact character of the self in relation to the Self: The ego is particular and mortal; the Self is universal and eternal. In his words:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

He concludes:

In this ode, then, Keats’s theme is that the loss of personal identity is a kind of dying, but it is a dying into life when we discover the immortal Self within us. This view is neither Christian nor Platonic. Our immortality does not consist in our retention of personal identity but in the loss of such identity altogether. Such a view fully conforms to that of Zen.

His final conclusion puts me in touch with a nobler version of Keats by far than the one I left behind in my early manhood:

. . . . if . . . romantic self-abandonment is [the norm], then Keats clearly ought to be regarded as an exception to this rule. His particular kind of self-annihilation was not egotistic and solipsistic and an excuse for “the extremest form of romantic self-expansion.” His self-annihilation did not result in the inflation of his personal ego, but in a genuine loss of self-identity and in a discovery of his True Self.

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Haydon’s Life Mask of John Keats (image from Joanna Richardson’s Folio Society volume)

Imaginative Identification

He adduces far more evidence than I have reproduced here to support his view and I need to re-read Keats carefully once more, both in his poetry and his letters, to make sure that I am still not misreading him in terms of a loss of personal identity. I recognise that as death approached and he grew physically and mentally weaker his capacity for poetry at this highest level diminished. I resonate none the less to the possibility that this loss of ego, even if intermittent, could be the source of both his and Shakespeare’s uncanny capacity to enter into the consciousness of even tiny creatures:

One of the factors involved in the loss of self-identity on the part of Keats’s man of negative capability is his “imaginative identification” with and submission to things. Like the typical Chinese artist with Taoist or Buddhist training, he seeks “harmony with the universe by communion with all things.” Keats himself underwent such an experience on more than one occasion, as he tells us in . . . . his letters. In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817, he discloses that he has come to submit himself to things to the extent that “if a Sparrow comes before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”

Duncan Wu (op.cit. page 1011) holds a similar view:

Hunt had taught him one important lesson which he was never to relinquish – that it is not the poet’s task to impose a vision or interpretation on the outside world, but to immerse, and lose, the self in what is perceived.

This aspect of his character sheds an even deeper light into the topic of compassion, which has preoccupied me so much and for so long. I have already shared on this blog a moment in Shakespeare of this same remarkable kind. I quoted these lines from ‘Measure for Measure‘ (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 85-88):

The sense of death is most in apprehension,
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

Benton may be right and it would not diminish my new found respect for Keats as a man and a poet if he were, and Keats had a comparable capacity to Shakespeare’s for the reasons Benton gives: Keats, at his best, may be far deeper than I ever thought and I have my dreaming self to thank for that realisation.

I’m not sure this will help me write more poems but it has definitely been a most rewarding journey!

Labyrinth

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JK frontispiece

Given my current drought of poems to post at the same time as I’m exploring creativity intensely, this seem a good sequence to republish. The next post will be on Tuesday.

Why on earth am I writing about Keats and Zen? I’m afraid that’s a long story. And it’s not just because I was reading about Buddhism recently. That’d be too easy.

It all begins with me moaning into my journal that my poems have dried up. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that when I’m fishing for a poem and bait the hook with an idea or a promising phrase that has popped into my head, I drop it into my mind’s fast flowing currents but recently no poems at all have bitten on my line. Not even a sardine sonnet to be seen anywhere. My poems seem to be an endangered species, on the verge of extinction.

I should be regularly posting new poems these days, but almost none of my many specks of grit have made the magical transformation into a pearl of a poem – as of now anyway.

I thought I’d share this instead to explain the situation and buy myself a bit more time.

Hints from my Dreaming Mind

So, I go to bed one night recently and ask my dreaming mind to come up with something that might help. (This is the second time within a matter of weeks that I’ve done this on different issues. For the first equally intriguing occasion see link.)

I drift off to sleep. I find myself rushing late into a meeting in someone’s house. An elderly man in a robe is on the sofa. In response to my apology he says I need to share a poem after the prayers. I’m in a panic because I have no book of poems with me. What am I going to say when my turn comes? Then I remember. I still know at least one whole poem off by heart. I can say it and to my astonishment I do.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled Books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain –
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of Chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting Love; then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think,
Till Love and Fame to Nothingness do sink. –

(When I checked later I found I had only got one word wrong – I said ‘full garners.’) I woke in the middle of the night with the words of the poem ringing round my brain. I tried saying it again to see if I could. I missed ‘alone’ out that time, but apart from that was almost word perfect again.

Weird! I haven’t read any Keats for years. In fact, in my twenties I rather came to dismiss him as one of the immature Romantics (he died tragically young after all – the same age as me when I decided he wasn’t up to scratch) and exalted Wordsworth and Coleridge instead in my imagination. There may be reasons, as we will see, for not rating Wordsworth as highly –  spiritually at least.

I shared my astonishment with my journal as soon as I could find time.

I realized my request for a response from my dreaming mind had been answered, and answered pretty fully. I wrote three pages of notes to record my waking mind’s immediate responses to a slow re-reading of the sonnet. I won’t bore you with them all as they are not relevant to my theme today.

The reactions that are relevant read as follows:

His sense of mutability behind his attraction to mortal love carries the deeper implications of a different kind of love, even though he may not himself have been aware of the Buddhist implications of the final line and the sense, which I am seeking to cultivate, that my persona is not who I really am, and that the real world can be experienced when we step out of the prison of our lower self and risk the void we fear to find the Reality we crave.

Keats also wrote about the ‘negative capability’ which makes him an emblem, albeit indirectly, of my commitment to meditation-mindfulness.

It then occurred to me to check my annotated edition of Keats to see if I could find any evidence that he was aware at all of Buddhist teachings. There was only one reference I could find to Buddhism and it had nothing to do with its teachings.

The Fruits of a Long ShotJK mask & Cover

I thought, ‘Why not try the web?’

At first I drew a blank. And then I found Keats and Zen. This is a paper written in 1966 by Richard P. Benton in a philosophy journal – not my usual kind of grazing ground but irresistible this time (Philosophy East and West V. 16 No. 1/2 (1966) pp. 33-47 Copyright 1966 by University of Hawaii Press Hawaii, USA).

Apparently Keats knew nothing of Buddhism but his thought and experience maps closely onto that of Zen Buddhism in the view of Benton at least (see above for overall page references):

Keats did succeed in achieving a genuine loss of self-identity. He uncovered his universal Self or Buddha nature in a manner closely resembling Zen awakening, or satori. His conception of his experience closely parallels that of Zen Buddhism. Although I am aware that Keats’s notions of the loss of self-identity and of the empathetic quality of the imagination were derived from well-known Western sources, especially from Hazlitt, his position in these matters can best be appreciated by drawing a parallel between it and that of Zen.

I was amazed again. And not just by the improbability of this statement in itself, but also that I should have tracked it down by following hints that resulted from a prompting by my dreaming mind.

But there was more:

Keats’s metaphysical quest and his conception of it parallel Zen experience and thinking. His theory of knowledge, his idea of spiritual development by means of a “Pleasure Thermometer,” and his view that the writing of poetry ought to be spontaneous and its effect natural — all these views are consonant with Zen attitudes. His metaphysical quest was successful — he achieved a genuine loss of self-identity and reached the ideal Zen state of being — “transcendence of the dichotomy between the self and the not-self.” Evidence of his successful quest is to be found in his letters and his poetry.

Benton is not claiming that Keats was completely consistent in this correlation with Zen but that at times he achieved something indistinguishable from the Zen perspective in Benton’s view. I am simplifying a fairly complex argument here but the bottom line of his understanding of Keats is summarized when he writes:

Our task, then, according to Keats, is to refine our sensations and to cultivate our feelings to the point where we can rise imaginatively to the level of consciousness that is necessary for us to perceive that the many are actually one. Keats’s idea that the process leading to this illumination is a gradual one is expressed in his conception which he himself labels the ‘Pleasure Thermometer.’ He expresses this conception in his early poem Endymion (Canto I: lines 777-811 – I have edited out some lines describing intermediate steps):

Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence; till we shine,
Full alchemiz’d, and free of space. Behold
The clear religion of heaven! Fold
A rose leaf round thy finger’s taperness,
And soothe thy lips: . . . . .
. . . . . that moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit’s. But there are
Richer entanglements, enthralments far
More self-destroying, leading, by degrees,
To the chief intensity: the crown of these
Is made of love and friendship, and sits high
Upon the forehead of humanity.
All its more ponderous and bulky worth
Is friendship, whence there ever issues forth
A steady splendour; but at the tip-top,
There hangs by unseen film, an orbed drop
Of light, and that is love: its influence,
Thrown in our eyes, genders a novel sense,
At which we start and fret; till in the end,
Melting into its radiance, we blend,
Mingle, and so become a part of it, —

That I should be thrown as well into a Keatsian version of levels of consciousness after the pattern of Ken Wilber and Jenny Wade was frankly mind-boggling.

So what exactly is this ‘pleasure thermometer’ Benton claims to have found in Endymion.

Even till the very last and most brilliantly productive years of his short life, Keats continued  to consider this development, whatever it was exactly, as a process that unfolded in stages. This is attested by a letter, not quoted by Benton. It was written in May 1818 to his good friend the writer and critic John Hamilton Reynolds, as Keats struggled to come to terms with his younger brother, Tom’s imminent death from tuberculosis (John Keats: a critical edition of the major works, edited by Elizabeth Cook: page 397):

I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me – The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think – we remain there a long while . . . . . . but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle – within us – we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, then we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere . . . . . and think of delaying there for ever in delight . . . . This Chamber of Maiden-Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open . . .

But it is slightly more complicated than this, as we will see in next week’s post.

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Guernica

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

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

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

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

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychology’s Angle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

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

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

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

We’ll come back to that quote later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

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

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

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

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

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

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

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

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