‘Perspicacity’ by René Magritte (adapted from Magritte by Marcel Paquet in the Taschen Edition)
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
John Keats – Ode on a Grecian Urn
Now that I have finished my sequence of posts on Vincent van Gogh, and especially as the last post in the sequence was dealing with his mental health and the relationship that had with his art, it seemed appropriate to republish my three posts on genius from the past. They were all published in the middle of last year. The first was a stand alone: these two are a pair. This time I’m posting them on consecutive days, the first yesterday and the last tomorrow.
Having now finished my first complete reading of Irreducible Mind, I would like to tackle, in two stages, the subject of genius as the book presents Myers’s version.
The first stage is to look at why we should believe something special is going on, and the second stage will be to look at why we might entertain the idea that the work of genius comes from a transcendent process. It is in this second part that I will return to at least some of the evolutionary implications that an earlier post touched upon.
The Trap of Methodolatry
The first key issue to note is that the reduction of genius to creativity is in danger of missing the point (page 425):
[T]he study of the real thing – “genius” – has largely degenerated in modern times into the study of diluted cognates such as “creativity” or even “talent” which happen to be relatively accessible to the more “objective” means of investigation currently favoured by most investigators.
A brief quote from a recent book should serve to illustrate what they are saying. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, in their treatment of the issue in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, define creativity as they see it (page 4):
In human behaviour, creativity refers broadly to generating new ideas, whereas innovation refers to changing the way in which things are done. Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behavior or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others.
It is immediately apparent that this is a long way short of what Myers is speaking about when he refers to genius (page 426):
In Human Personality vol 1, page 71, he writes of genius as: A power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought. . . . . [Inspiration] will be in truth a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being.
It is in the expression ‘profounder regions of his being’ that the main contentious issue resides. At this stage we are only concerned with providing reasons to accept that genius is something special, not easily reducible to common or garden conscious processes. The next post will deal with the more difficult step.
Theories prevalent in the early years of the last century provide non-transcendent ways of addressing this which are, the authors argue, widely accepted in general terms (page 428):
Original formulation of a four phase model Graham Wallas (1926) – more fully developed version Eliot Dole Hutchinson (1931: 1939). The stages are:
- illumination; and
Briefly, preparation refers primarily to the initial stages of intense voluntary effort on a particular work or problem. . . . . If this initial effort fails, the work or problem may temporarily be put aside in frustration, this being the stage of incubation… in which conscious effort seems to be largely or wholly absent. Something more than simple rest or dissipation of inhibitions seems to be involved during the incubation period, for then comes illumination, inspiration, or insight, in which radically new ideas intrude into consciousness, often suddenly, copiously, and with strong accompanying affect. This leads to a further stage of voluntary effort, verification, in which the new material may be evaluated, elaborated, and worked into the structure of the evolving product.
Edward Kelly and Michael Grosso, the authors of this chapter, acknowledge that this is not a strict sequence and there may be overlaps and recursions. A creative friend in a Facebook post also mentions the idea of a fallow period where nothing much seems to be going on while the soil recovers. He implies this is not the same as incubation, more a period where nothing has been primed so no seeds are germinating.
There are the obstinate few who do not accept this model in any form and wish to ‘deny that genius ever depends upon or utilises any special sort of “unconscious” work’ (ibid.):
Nothing more is involved, on this view, then unusually tenacious, discipline, and incremental application of cognitive processes of the ordinary sort.
Harold Bloom (for source of image see link)
The evidence in support of the dissenters has for the most part been generated in the laboratory where (pages 428-29) ‘incubation and illumination cannot readily and reliably be evoked.”
They come to the crunch, barely concealing their contempt for this dismissive line of argument which also infects ‘literary scholars’ it seems (page 429):
[W]ith all due respect, this “nothing-special” view of genius seems to us a particularly egregious example of “methodolatry” . . . . The unwillingness of many modern literary scholars to confront genius in its full-blown phenomenological reality has recently provoked Harold Bloom (2002) to castigate them as “cultural levellers, quite immune from awe,” and in our view that judgement applies equally here.
The Roots of Genius in the Unconscious
In the end, then, I am with them in feeling that much of significance in the process of creating works of genius proceeds unconsciously. This could of course lead to another form of debasing reductionism. The Freudian distinction between Primary (pre-verbal, dreamlike) and Secondary (rational, verbal) Processes is a case in point but they feel it does not meet the challenges involved (page 458):
Primary process is no longer conceived as rigidly distinct from and opposed to secondary process, or as a mere slave of the Freudian unconscious – that boiling cesspool of primitive sexual and aggressive urges. Rather, it represents a distinctive mode of cognition existing alongside secondary process, complementary to and interactive with it, and potentially available in service of creative activities.
It is tempting here to delve back into McGilchrist’s exploration of the two hemispheres of the brain. Instead, to point up the possibilities of this, I’ll restrict myself to a short quote and a link back to my review of his book (page 203):
There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. In this sense the ‘givens’ of the left hemisphere need to be once again ‘given up’ to be reunified through the operations of the right hemisphere. . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.
Nor are we to suppose that genius is merely a whisker away from insanity, an idea that the 19th Century thinkers often toyed with (page 459):
“Inspiration – the ‘divine release from the ordinary ways of man,’ a state of ‘creative madness’ (Plato), in which the ego controls the primary process and puts it into its service – need to be contrasted with the opposite, the psychotic condition, in which the ego is overwhelmed by the primary process.”
Myers had little patience with those in the 19th Century who conflated genius and madness and subscribed to a ‘degeneracy’ theory. However, he did manage to sift some flecks of truth from its silt (page 471):
… [G]enius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service of supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.
I have already looked in more detail at the idea of genius as the norm of the future in a previous post.
William James is even more nuanced (ibid.):
Against any presumption that hallucinations are invariably diagnostic for psychopathology, for example, James pointed to the demonstrations by Myers and his colleagues that waking hallucinations are not uncommon in the lives of otherwise normal persons. Secondly, there are many examples of geniuses, even poetic geniuses, who were paragons of balance and stability. . . . Madness therefore is certainly not necessary for genius, although it may sometimes combine with intellect and will to produce it. What madness provides in such cases – what really is necessary, and can also occur in its absence – is uprushes from the “seething cauldron” of the subliminal, as described by Myers.
They deal at some length with the various attempts that have continued to be made to link creativity and mental ill health, before expressing their measured take on the issue (page 473):
Most importantly, a central recurring theme amidst all the reported psychopathology is its coexistence with unusual levels of ego strength, manifested in characteristics such as industry, drive, perseverance, organisation, discipline, independence of judgement, tolerance of ambiguity and frustration, and determination to master the subject at hand using any available means of expression.
They draw in Jamison quoting Heaney on the bipolar Robert Lowell (page 474):
[Lowell] had in awesome abundance the poet’s first gift for surrender to those images of language that heave to the fore matter that will not be otherwise summoned, all that might be otherwise suppressed. Under the ray of his concentration, the molten stuff of the psyche ran hot and unstaunched. But its final form was as much beaten as poured, the cooling ingot was assiduously hammered. A fully human and relentless intelligence was at work upon the pleasuring quick of the creative act.
For source of image see link
Tackling another bastion of reductionism, they explain at some length what they feel are the insuperable deficiencies of the computer-based cognitive explanations of creativity which is any case a lower form of activity than genius.
Of far greater concern to them is the key importance of imagination, imagery and primary process to our efforts to penetrate more deeply beneath the glittering surfaces of things as they seem. We have mentioned this as part of the post about the evolutionary implications of genius.
Now is the time to begin to go deeper (page 467):
. . . . in the most important cases the subject being construed or expressed may itself only become known, at least better known, as a result of [a] symbolic process. Bowra (1955) nicely captures this in his continuing description of creative inspiration: “what begins by being almost unconscious becomes conscious; what is at the start an outburst of energy infused with a vague idea or an undifferentiated vision becomes concrete and definite; what is outside the poet’s control is gradually made to submit to his will and judgement.”
Imagery, as I have suggested elsewhere, mediates between the expressible and the ineffable.
There are cases of where dreams contain the solution to a problem that has long been wrestled with (see link for more examples):
Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, the formation of chemical/organic “Structure Theory”, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. He had a dream!
I have explored this in far more detail elsewhere on this blog.
It is a short step now to the theme of the next post. A kind of Platonism prepares us to begin a consideration of the transpersonal roots of genius (page 486):
The sense of beauty… has increasingly been recognised as playing a vital role in creative activity in all fields from mathematics and science to the arts. Koestler (1964) in particular had urged this view upon the early cognitive psychologists, without much success, declaring for example that “beauty is a function of truth, truth a function beauty. They can be separated by analysis, but in the lived experience of the creative act – and of its re-creative echo in the beholder – they are as inseparable as thought is inseparable from emotion”. A. I. Miller (2001) documents in detail the role played by a sense of beauty in both Picasso and Einstein. Even Poincaré . . . invoked the notion of a subliminal aesthetic “sieve” that would only pass through to waking consciousness . . . “combinations of mental atoms” . . . whose elegance would make them of real mathematical interest.
I will come back to the further implications of all this in the next post.
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