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As to your question concerning the meaning of physical suffering and its relation to mental and spiritual healing: Physical pain is a necessary accompaniment of all human existence, and as such is unavoidable. As long as there will be life on earth, there will be also suffering, in various forms and degrees. But suffering, although an inescapable reality, can nevertheless be utilized as a means for the attainment of happiness. . . .  Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us to better adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self-improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness.

(In a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 29 May 1935 to an individual believer) 

Architecture

With both my reading and the anxieties about our steward’s missing cousin, the positive side of the experience on board ship was becoming overshadowed by darker realities.

We really needed our excursion into Pisa, not simply to get off the boat but also for the uplifting nature of what we found there, and I’m not talking about the Leaning Tower. We knew that we would not be able to go up the tower anyway. To do that we would have needed to book in advance. However, that was not a problem as there was so much else to see.

It was a short drive of 30 minutes from Livorno where our ship had docked. The coach parked in the bus station and the guide escorted us to the Square of Miracles or Cathedral Square.

We found the ticket office after retracing our steps the entire length of the square, and booked ourselves to go into the three main buildings in the square: the Baptistry, the Cathedral and the Cemetery, the latter rather unusually being a building enclosing a burial site. As the tour guide had said en route, those three buildings encapsulated birth, life and death.

The tall and circular baptistry was quite a surprise to me. The guide had explained why it was separate from the cathedral. At that period of history in 1363 the belief was that the unbaptized could not enter a church so baptism had to take place somewhere else than the cathedral. Even so, I was puzzled as to why such an extremely lofty space, with its font of octagonal design, should have been constructed for such a simple ceremony. It is apparently the largest baptistry in Italy. Because of the underlying sand, the Baptistry leans 0.6 degrees toward the cathedral – rather appropriate really.

Despite my bafflement, or perhaps partly because of it, the Baptistry was a good preparation for the very different experience of the Cemetery or Campo Santo, its rebuild completed in 1464. It may seem bizarre to have dislocated the natural order of things by visiting the Cemetery before the Cathedral and immediately after the Baptistry. It seemed to make sense at the time because of the long queue waiting to enter the Cathedral.

Although the sarcophagi and the stone slabs or plaques marking a grave were striking in themselves, I found myself captivated by the frescos high along the walls. The first had been applied in 1360, the last about three centuries later. On 27 July 1944, a bomb fragment from an Allied raid started a fire.The frescos had had to be removed due to extensive fire damage to the building. They were now in the process of being transferred back into place.

Here was yet another complex message about the human predicament. The frescos captured both the faith in Christ of their original creators and a very real sense of the thriving communities that effectively financed and admired them. Their near-destruction captured the fragility and transience of all things, as well as the role in their vulnerability of human discord. The clash of ideologies is still with us and now it has once more a quasi-religious twist reminiscent of what lay in store for England barely 70 years after the Cemetery building had been completed.

It was a more subtle message than the amphitheatre’s, but a powerful one none the less.

The Cathedral was a more conventionally extravagant celebration of worship and did not detain us long. In fact, the most memorable moment was a friendly exchange with an Indian tourist whose camera fell out of her selfie-stick onto the stone floor. She retrieved it fortunately unharmed. She exchanged some pleasantries with my wife, both clearly pleased to find someone from the same culture in this stridently Christian context. Or perhaps I am reading too much into their instant connection.

Anyway, this had been a distinct if brief shift to spirituality, something in short supply on board.

On returning to the ship and examining our Horizon bulletin of the next day’s events, we saw there’d be a talk on Dalí, some of whose prints were on exhibition in the gallery.

That evening we were glad to hear that our steward’s uncle had let him know that his cousin had been found. He had taken safe refuge in a friend’s house and was alive and well.

Feeling lighter in heart we took to our beds looking forward to hearing more about Dali after breakfast.

Art

The most intriguing fact that came out of the Dalí talk was that he was told by his parents and came to believe that he was the reincarnation of his brother, who died before he was born. I suppose it would intrigue me as I was in a way a replacement for my dead sister, Mary. Too much of that already on this blog.

Other details were less compelling. He met Picasso through Miró and copied his moustache from Valázquez. More illuminating was Dalí’s explanation for his bent clocks. They were apparently inspired by the sight of a melting Camembert, not, as many critics have supposed, by the abstruse metaphysics of time’s recently discovered relativity.

We were pleased to learn that the Dalí prints would be on exhibition in the gallery the following day.

This was to add another world to my growing list. I’d so far gone from the landscape of Clare through the ‘archaeoscape’ of the amphitheatre to the townscape of Lowry: now was to be the turn of a dreamscape, with associations to one of my favourite artists of all time.

I was about to encounter prints of three tributes from among many that Dalí had paid to Goya. I just can’t rate Picasso, whom Dalí had met, as highly as I rate Goya, mainly because the ego is still too obvious in most of his art, as was also the case, I feel, with Dalí.

However, I need to acknowledge that Dalí was the bridge on this ship between Goya and me, and triggered some further mind-expanding processes.

A sales catalogue is the only source I could find for a copy of the picture and an explanation of some of the background to these works of Dalí:

227 years after the birth of Spanish master Francisco Goya, Salvador Dali had an idea to transform Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’ and present a new work. Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’ was an artistic experiment exposing the foolish superstitions in 18th century Spanish society. Goya described the series as depicting ‘the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual’. The body of work was withdrawn from public sale before their planned release in 1799. Only a formal order from King Carlos IV kept Goya from being called before the Spanish Inquisition. In 1973 Salvador Dali created a metamorphosis of Goya’s suite into a colourful surrealist masterpiece.

Between 1936 and 1939, Spain was going through a civil war with many artists taking sides or going into exile. In 1948 Dalí and Gala, his wife, moved back into their house in Port Lligat, on the coast near Cadaqués. For the next three decades, he would spend most of his time there painting, taking time off and spending winters with his wife in Paris and New York. His acceptance and implicit embrace of Franco’s dictatorship were strongly disapproved of by other Spanish artists and intellectuals who remained in exile.

In 1968, Dalí had bought a castle in Púbol for Gala; and starting in 1971 she would retreat there alone for weeks at a time. By Dalí’s own admission, he had agreed not to go there without written permission from his wife. His fears of abandonment and estrangement from his longtime artistic muse contributed to depression and failing health. Franco died in November 1975.

Dalí’s surrealist version of Goya’s caprichos falls between Gala’s withdrawal and Franco’s death.

When we visited the gallery my attention was held longest on one etching print in particular.

This is the picture at the head of this post: Si no amanece nos quedamos. Goya’s original is rather different:  Si Amenece nos vamos.

As I stood before the image in the gallery the first thought that came to mind was of refugees. I thought of traumatised Syrian and Rohingya families fleeing their homeland in desperation. In terms of the original image that Goya created I was probably post-dating it, getting confused with his black paintings, created some 20 years later, after the war with Napoleon, and with Dalí I was taking it back in time to the horrors of the Civil War.

The lady in charge of the gallery came up as I was digesting these slightly inaccurate implications.

‘You’re interested in that one?’ she enquired.

‘I’m finding it interesting to look at and reflect on,’ I replied, careful not to indicate that my interest extended to making the £875 purchase. ‘It’s so evocative of those times in history when people are displaced.’

‘Exactly,’ she murmured sympathetically.

‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose, in a way,’ I replied, catching myself feeling slightly pretentious.

‘I’m afraid it is. Anyway we’re not selling any of these now, but there’s a special showing tomorrow. What‘s your cabin number?’

I replied without thinking.

‘I’ll send you an invite. It’ll be in your cabin tonight. See you then.’

‘Hopefully.’

It was slowly dawning on me that, although I was standing in what called itself a gallery, it was really a shop. Art has been a commodity since somebody somewhere at some point in history bought the first picture. Nature became one in a big way for certain with the Enlightenment, and without the technological advances which that brought with it, I would not have been on board this ship standing in front of this print. The pains John Clare endured from Enclosure were only a sign of worse things to come.

‘Did the benefits outweigh the costs?’ I found myself asking myself, as we walked away.

I apologise for the poor quality of the versions of these pictures. They’re the best I can find that I feel free to use. I felt it would be useful to pause a moment and reflect on them.

Basically, the figures seem much the same.

Given that Dalí lived in Spain, seemingly complicit with the rule of Franco, it is hard to be sure what he was intending when he revisited Goya’s Caprichos in 1973. Was it only the dream element and not the political that appealed to him?

We have only the change of title to go on, in this case. No dawn for Dalí means staying put, while the dawn for Goya means leaving. I can only guess at what the different implications might be. Dalí’s suggests pessimism and passivity, whereas Goya’s implies hope and action. This conveys to me that it is more dream than politics which stands behind Dalí’s work, whereas, for reasons I’ll go into later, Goya’s work is more a dynamic fusion of the two.

Image scanned from Werner Hofman’s Thames and Hudson ‘Goya.’

Another pointer for me in that direction is the stark difference between image number 79 in both sequences. Goya’s title and subject is Murió la Verdad: Dalí’s is Reflejos de Luna. The images are completely different. Given the times through which Dalí was living, the death of truth was clearly as much an issue as it is now. His evasion of it here seems significant. Passivity and pessimism may indeed have led him to collusion. With Franco not dead yet as he did this work, Murió la Verdad may have seemed a step too far. (Incidentally, I did search the rest of the Dalí catalogue for an equivalent of Goya’s image, in case it had been renumbered, but could find nothing.)

Where next?

Later, I was prompted to look at the life of a poet who took the drastic step of abandoning the religion of his entire family. Whether he did this to avoid execution and to obtain preferment, or out of genuine conviction even at the risk of possible eternal damnation, is a moot point. To be fair, it is perhaps equally difficult to be sure of Dalí’s motives.

In the end though the main point is that this etching sent me back to Goya and a comparison of those other parts of Dalí’s sequence I’ve just mentioned, something I obviously wasn’t able to do till I got back home. None the less it is a legacy of the cruise and therefore an extension of that experience.

The echoes evoked by Dalí may seem from the outside to have spoiled my experience of the cruise even further, but in fact they enriched it. I benefited immensely from my encounter with the Goya/Dalí blend, in fact as much as I did from the sunsets and far more than from the dance floor or the black-tie dinners.

Incidentally, we did go back to the gallery for the special viewing, just to see a fifth print unveiled. It depicted what at first looked like a fish skewered for dinner above a serving dish that looked like a sarcophagus: on closer inspection it was a woman/mermaid – a characteristic product from within the Dalí dreamscape and definitely without a trace of politics that I could detect.

I’ve since tracked it down on a cookery website which stated about two years ago:

This fall, Taschen published a handsome facsimile edition of Les Diners de Gala, a cookbook the artist wrote in 1973 [Apparently the same year as his tribute to Goya’s Caprichos]. Named after his wife, also a legendary gourmand, it’s one of the most unusual recipe books ever created, a bit like Escoffier on acid. Today, signed copies sell for as much as $25,000. I once sat at the New York Public Library for hours, flipping through Dalí’s illustrations of dishes and meals in a kind of terrified thrall. Crayfish towers are topped with the torso of Joan of Arc, her amputated arms gushing blood. Chickens are trussed with barbed wire. A swan, its head chock-full of human teeth, is served on a pastry dish. Dalí is there, too, pictured at the swanky Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, wearing a plush velvet suit, holding a golden scepter, surrounded by a Rabelaisian feast of his own devising.

It was not long before a photo-shoot took place with the gallery director and the proud purchaser of the print standing on either side of it as the cruise photographer recorded the moment for promotional posterity.

Dalí seems to have been in his element as a commodifier of his art, an unenviable skill that escaped Goya when he attempted to sell his Caprichos. That’s one of the reasons why I feel his ego compromised his art. Possibly significantly, my only way of tracing the images we’d seen in the gallery was via sites which involved selling something. The sites I tried which were more focused on art in a slightly purer sense contained not a hint about them. I’m trying hard not to read too much into that.

Next time I will examine a key figure in art that the prints of Dalí in the cruise ship’s gallery pointed me towards. No prizes for guessing who.

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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)

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

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

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

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychology’s Angle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

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

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

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

We’ll come back to that quote later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

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 next Monday.

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GuernicaWhen I had just begun this blog in 2009 I was much more tentative about what I wrote and the blog posts were much shorter add a result — sorry, did you say it was a shame that changed? Anyhow, I think there is enough of value in this one to justify republishing it in the light of the current sequence on van Gogh. 

There were three of us working through what is the last book currently in the series of study books I wrote about in a previous post. The facilitator mentioned something completely new to me: a You Tube video he had seen of a very moving sand animation depicting how people had suffered during the German invasion of the Ukraine in World World II. Jeffrey Davis writes:

Kseniya Simonova is a Ukrainian artist who just won Ukraine’s version of “America’s Got Talent.” She uses a giant light box, dramatic music, imagination and “sand painting” skills to interpret Germany’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII. Her technique and rapid fire impressionism are impressive, and you can see the emotional impact her art had on the audience members.

War time atrocities have often been the spur to great art. The art has taken many different forms: poetry, painting, music, and now even sand art.

It may seem a long way from Guernica to:

But without Guernica‘s revolutionising impulse the moving experience of the Ukrainian sand animation might not have been possible.

And the impact is similar.

In the You Tube video you see members of the audience in tears.

When I went to Madrid two summers ago I stood in front of Guernica in the Reina Sofia National Museum of Art, as I had earlier stood in front of Goya‘s masterpiece The Third of May in the nearby Prado, moved to the core of my being by the power with which they each conveyed in their different ways the enormity of the human suffering involved in each atrocity depicted.

Goya’s ‘The Third of May’

I had always loved the Goya, even in reproduction, but, until I saw its massive scale (it is 25.5 feet wide) and empathic detail ‘live’ as it were, in the gallery, I had totally underestimated the achievement of the Guernica canvas. It is so epic in scale yet so muted in colour as well as so intense in its mute archetypal imagery of pain, that its message cannot fail to penetrate the heart of anyone who stands before it attentively for even a few moments.

Picasso saw his art in moral terms:

Painting is not done to decorate apartments.  It is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.

His outrage at the atrocity reputedly found an equally courageous expression in Paris when he was visited by the Gestapo.

During one visit a remark from an inquisitive Nazi officer brought a retort from Picasso which has become famous. Seeing a photo of Guernica lying on the table the German asked: ‘Did you do this?’ Answer: ‘No . . . you did.’

(Roland Penrose’s Picasso: page 333)

This remark may of course have been apocryphal, but it’s a good story none the less which illustrates the role of art and the artist at its most heroic and idealistic.

Sometimes when, as was said of Wilfred Owen, the ‘poetry is in the pity,’ it can be the extremity of the subject matter rather than the skill of the artist that creates the impact. I do not think this to be true of Picasso and Goya, or of Owen for that matter. That’s easier to say at this distance in time. It’s what makes the difference between art and propaganda. Art extends beyond the horror to evoke something in the human spirit that transcends it.

It’s harder to say where the impact of such art as recent more transient and fragile creations in sand might lie when they depict comparable atrocities. There is something about the very frailty of the medium that adds to the effect, even when it is not harnessed to the creation of a rapidly changing sequence of images.

By Sudarshan Pattnaik: September 2008

Here the sight of the sea in the background brings out the vulnerability of the protest. The words tend to limit its frame of reference and thereby reduce the power of its art.

Whatever the value of any particular creation, art, at its best and greatest, is a channel for the noblest impulses of the human spirit. It touches deeper levels of our being inaccessible to more ordinary means of communication. Why else would advertisers be so eager to co-opt it to commercial purposes or the power hungry demagogue to prostitute it for his own aggrandisement? That’s why it is so important for us to encourage it as well as protecting and nurturing those who produce it.

Who else is there to remind us as effectively as Owen does that we need to see beneath the romance of combat to those ‘who die like cattle’ under the ‘monstrous anger of the guns?’ Auden‘s words also echo down the years to us with the same seemingly futile but necessary warning:

Far off, no matter what good they intended,
Two armies waited for a verbal error
With well-made implements for causing pain,

And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.

(Sonnets from China: XV)

Bahá’u’lláh‘s words to Professor Edward Browne still have the same haunting potency now as they did when He first uttered them:

Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come.

It needs the concerted action of the vast majority of humanity to bring that about. God willing, we will all rise as best we can before it is too late to play our part in that process with all the courage and creativity at our command. We can’t just sit back and leave it to even the most divinely inspired artists and mystics. This is our job to do.

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Goya’s ‘Truth Has Died’

Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

(A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library)

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

This faculty brings forth from the invisible plane the sciences and arts. Through the meditative faculty inventions are made possible, colossal undertakings are carried out; through it governments can run smoothly. Through this faculty man enters into the very kingdom of God.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris Talks, page 175)

A Turning Point in Human History

At a critical period in the prehistory of humanity, traces of three trends can be found in the archaeological record at a level not previously seen: artistic activity, burial and advances in tool making. As the basis of his examination of the link he sees between this flowering of creativity and a vulnerability to problems of the mind, Horrobin summarises this turning point in the following terms (The Madness of Adam & Eve, page 19):

While our knowledge of our ancestors remains very limited, the artefacts that they left behind demonstrate a clear discontinuity in mind, if not in body, which occurred at some point between about 50,000 and 200,000 years ago.

More recently Keith Oatley has unpacked a similar point in his exploration of the importance of fiction, Such Stuff as Dreams (page 28):

Steven Mithen has proposed that the ability to make metaphors is close to the essence of being human, and close to the essence of art. It’s the ability to discover that something can be both itself and something else. . . . It could be that our attainment of it was the crossing of a threshold from the archaic to the modern human mind. Evidence of the archaeological record indicates that this ability arose between (sic) relatively recently. . . .  A musical instrument – a flute – has been found from 43,000 years ago. The first known cave paintings were made 31,000 years ago. At around the same time, people started burying their dead.

Altamira Cave Painting

An increased variation in the tools created also dates from this period.

This is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms and can only be seen as a dramatic development. The reasons are hard to explain and reducing them to the result of accelerated brain development from some combination of vitamin-rich fish and digestion-aiding fire fails to be completely convincing. That a bigger brain gives us an evolutionary advantage in the ability it confers on us to deal with the complexities of our social life misses part of the mystery for me.

My concern is not so much with this development’s physical causes, its suddenness or the evolutionary advantages it might be said to bestow, but with the fact that it seemed to implicate three diverse forms of human expertise and inquiry: art, religion and science/technology. The roots of all those three are here. Horrobin quoted Picasso (op. cit: page 16) as having viewed the cave paintings at Altamira, painted throughout a period between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, and commented: ‘We have learned nothing.’

The Dangers of Dogmatic Science

We have become prone to see the realms within which art, religion and science move as quite distinct, even hostile. Is that position justified? Might it be possible that each is a path towards a better understanding of reality, towards a closer approximation of the truth? By divorcing them have we blocked off any hope of achieving a more complete perspective than the current fragmented and contradictory one?

There are increasing numbers of reputable thinkers who believe so. Rupert Sheldrake is a scientist who has risked his credibiliity and his career arguing publicly for science to accept its limitations and allow for the existence of baffling mysteries it cannot (yet?) explain.

He lists unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8):

Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.
1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.
3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).
4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.
5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Oatley is both a psychologist and novelist who makes what might seem extraordinary claims for fiction as ‘not just a slice of life’ (From the Preface) but as ‘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.’

Both of these writers, Baumeister and Oatley, bring the methods of science to bear upon the positions they are arguing for.

Combining our Powers

In the posts of this blog we have already seen Eric Reitan argue that it is just as reasonable to believe in God as not to believe in Him. There is no evidence, scientific or otherwise so completely compelling as to force anyone to believe or not believe. We have seen Ken Wilber and Margaret Donaldson clearly demonstrate that scientism privileges the kind of evidence that supports scientism’s reductionist prejudices and discounts replicable experiences within the meditative traditions that suggest they might be unwise to do so. Baumeister and Tierney as we have recently discussed have trawled the scientific literature and found numerous examples of how religion benefits society and the individual. (I am not blind to the dark side of faith and have discussed it at some length – see my posts on Conviction in the list below.)

In the end, though, how much longer can a beleaguered humanity grope for solutions to its complex and global problems in the semi-darkness, refusing to use every possible source of light?

All too often it seems, as Sheldrake contends, the light of science is dimmed by reductionist and simplistic filters that need to be discarded. Robert Wright has strongly implied that religion in the hands of too many of us is narrowed to the pencil torch of some kind of fundamentalism. At the same time, too much of art at the so-called high end has surrendered to the fragmented perspectives of modernism and merely reflects our bewildered and chaotic perceptions of reality back to us in its broken mirror.

We can’t afford to let this continue for much longer, I would have said. We need to stop bickering and combine our powers if we are to solve our problems in time.

I plan to come back to the works of Sheldrake and Oatley in more detail at a later date but feel that what they write is of such importance and said so eloquently that I needed to highlight their work almost as soon as I had found it.

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GuernicaThere were three of us working through what is the last book currently in the series of study books I wrote about in a previous post. The facilitator mentioned something completely new to me: a You Tube video he had seen of a very moving sand animation depicting how people had suffered during the German invasion of the Ukraine in World World II. Jeffrey Davis writes:

Kseniya Simonova is a Ukrainian artist who just won Ukraine’s version of “America’s Got Talent.” She uses a giant light box, dramatic music, imagination and “sand painting” skills to interpret Germany’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII. Her technique and rapid fire impressionism are impressive, and you can see the emotional impact her art had on the audience members.

War time atrocities have often been the spur to great art. The art has taken many different forms: poetry, painting, music, and now even sand art.

It may seem a long way from Guernica to:

But without Guernica‘s revolutionising impulse the moving experience of the Ukrainian sand animation might not have been possible.

And the impact is similar.

In the You Tube video you see members of the audience in tears.

When I went to Madrid two summers ago I stood in front of Guernica in the Reina Sofia National Museum of Art, as I had earlier stood in front of Goya‘s masterpiece The Third of May in the nearby Prado, moved to the core of my being by the power with which they each conveyed in their different ways the enormity of the human suffering involved in each atrocity depicted.

Goya’s ‘The Third of May’

I had always loved the Goya, even in reproduction, but, until I saw its massive scale (it is 25.5 feet wide) and empathic detail ‘live’ as it were, in the gallery, I had totally underestimated the achievement of the Guernica canvas. It is so epic in scale yet so muted in colour as well as so intense in its mute archetypal imagery of pain, that its message cannot fail to penetrate the heart of anyone who stands before it attentively for even a few moments.

Picasso saw his art in moral terms:

Painting is not done to decorate apartments.  It is an instrument of war against brutality and darkness.

His outrage at the atrocity reputedly found an equally courageous expression in Paris when he was visited by the Gestapo.

During one visit a remark from an inquisitive Nazi officer brought a retort from Picasso which has become famous. Seeing a photo of Guernica lying on the table the German asked: ‘Did you do this?’ Answer: ‘No . . . you did.’

(Roland Penrose’s Picasso: page 333)

This remark may of course have been apocryphal, but it’s a good story none the less which illustrates the role of art and the artist at its most heroic and idealistic.

Sometimes when, as was said of Wilfred Owen, the ‘poetry is in the pity,’ it can be the extremity of the subject matter rather than the skill of the artist that creates the impact. I do not think this to be true of Picasso and Goya, or of Owen for that matter. That’s easier to say at this distance in time. It’s what makes the difference between art and propaganda. Art extends beyond the horror to evoke something in the human spirit that transcends it.

It’s harder to say where the impact of such art as recent more transient and fragile creations in sand might lie when they depict comparable atrocities. There is something about the very frailty of the medium that adds to the effect, even when it is not harnessed to the creation of a rapidly changing sequence of images.

By Sudarshan Pattnaik: September 2008

Here the sight of the sea in the background brings out the vulnerability of the protest. The words tend to limit its frame of reference and thereby reduce the power of its art.

Whatever the value of any particular creation, art, at its best and greatest, is a channel for the noblest impulses of the human spirit. It touches deeper levels of our being inaccessible to more ordinary means of communication. Why else would advertisers be so eager to co-opt it to commercial purposes or the power hungry demagogue to prostitute it for his own aggrandisement? That’s why it is so important for us to encourage it as well as protecting and nurturing those who produce it.

Who else is there to remind us as effectively as Owen does that we need to see beneath the romance of combat to those ‘who die like cattle’ under the ‘monstrous anger of the guns?’ Auden‘s words also echo down the years to us with the same seemingly futile but necessary warning:

Far off, no matter what good they intended,
Two armies waited for a verbal error
With well-made implements for causing pain,

And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.

(Sonnets from China: XV)

Bahá’u’lláh‘s words to Professor Edward Browne still have the same haunting potency now as they did when He first uttered them:

Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come.

It needs the concerted action of the vast majority of humanity to bring that about. God willing, we will all rise as best we can before it is too late to play our part in that process with all the courage and creativity at our command. We can’t just sit back and leave it to even the most divinely inspired artists and mystics. This is our job to do.

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