Thursday, 26 June 2014

The genius as a 'medium': channeling external influences

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(What follows goes outwith science.)

Pretty much all the geniuses I have heard of and who have expressed an opinion seem to say (in one way or another) that the key factor in their genius comes from outwith their conscious motivation - and feels as if it appeared 'ready-made' in their awareness.

In other words, geniuses will often decline credit for the essence of their achievement (and it is other people who often insist upon ascribing agency to the genius).

This means that - to a varying extent - genius seems to be experienced as a mediumistic phenomenon, that being a genius feels like being a channel for insights and understandings and inventions.

From these point, there may be a division among geniuses: crafted versus automatic. In other words, some 'receive' the inspirations, and work-out for themselves how to communicate it by craft; while other geniuses also receive inspiration about communication - for example, deliberately crafted writing from within the writer; versus a more 'automatic' kind of writing which the writer (to some extent) mentally stands-back and observes the emergence of communications.

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The difference in these types crafted and automatic types of genius is seen when the product of a genius cannot satisfactorily be accounted-for by the observable personality and ability of that person.

Tolkien and JK Rowling could be taken as examples of the two types. Tolkien received his inspiration as 'given' him - as if discovered by him in fragments of ancient texts; and the achievement of Lord of the Rings can easily be understood in terms of Tolkien's own disposition, his abilities, what he wanted to do. When I see Tolkien in an interview is it obvious how a man like him would write LotR.

By contrast, JK Rowling's Harry Potter series (which is, in my evaluation, is also a work of genius - albeit lesser than LotR). But it is hard - I would say impossible - to understand Harry Potter as plausibly having been crafted by JK Rowling. When I see Rowling in an interview, there is a gross mis-match between the person and the work. I believe that the actual communication of Harry Potter was as a kind of 'automatic writing' - experienced more like taking dictation than crafting prose.

In support of this specific interpretation is that Tolkien felt a strong loyalty to LotR, and a gratitude for having the inspiration; while Rowling appears to be hostile to Harry Potter and has a detached, critical and revisionist attitude towards it - consistent with her not having had much to do with its production, but having mostly observed it emerging.

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Where does personal choice and motivation come in?

The genius must accept the external inspiration; and the automatic type of genius must also accept the 'dictation' of the actual mode of communication.

Any attempt to interfere or reshape the external inspiration - or to select or distort the automatic writing - will result in a drying-up of the source of inspiration and loss of automatic writing ability.

However, inspiration can be refused, and distortion of communication can be attempted - with the above consequences. Genius doesn't happen anymore.

Presumably, this accounts for the frequent situation when someone produces a single work of (inspired) genius - but everything else they produce (which is entirely the product of the creator, and lacks external inspiration) is at a qualitatively lower level.

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Most of these ideas are derived from A Geography of Consciousnesses by William Arkle (1974) 151-156.

6 comments:

Bruce Charlton said...

ARAKAWA comments I would disagree that high-level artistic inspiration is strictly a one-way, automatic-writing sort of process where any attempt by the author to shape the unfolding work will only lead to ruining it. In fact, framing it that way leads to not only fatalism but also an infinite regress of artistic inspiration. If the author gets his inspiration from a Muse, then where does the Muse get her inspiration from?

Rather, it seems to me that the universe is so framed that no true creativity can _really_ come without collaboration. God may create alone and _ex nihilo_, but to human beings that power is certainly not granted. (And a lot of artistic pride and barrenness boils down to a failure to acknowledge this fact.) No one can produce a work of art all on their own -- neither a Muse, nor a human Poet -- just like no one can conceive a child all on their own.

Moreover, Muses and Poets are complementary in their roles, reminiscent to the complementarity of the sexes in marriage (but also making a total hash of it in other ways, if we try to apply the metaphor too literally). One side effect of this is that I find it difficult to imagine a Muse as anything other than female. (Just like to a devout traditional Christian the notion of a female Priest is incoherent.)

One aspect of the complementarity is obviously that a Poet is physically rooted to one place and time on Earth, whereas a Muse is a bodiless being (presumably) capable of observing a large swath of events and actual / potential realities, in order to propose notions and answer the Poet's questions, and to have a better idea of what _needs to be said_ for a given day and age. (They have their own free will, I would assume, and therefore the ability to use their knowledge for good or for evil.) The interaction of two different perspectives produces a result that would occur neither to the Poet or the Muse if they were relying solely on their own capacities.

continued...

Bruce Charlton said...

continued...The various defects of artistic inspiration can then be likened to the various defects in a conversation, or a marriage. One cannot have a conversation without listening intently, just like one cannot have a conversation without speaking one's piece, even if it boils down to expressing one's approval of what the other person has to say. The "interference" attempts that Bruce Charlton observes killing most works of art can be likened to the artist not liking what the Muse has to say, and trying to shout her down. In the heightened metaphor of the marriage, this amounts to an abusive or domineering relationship, which obviously defeats its own goals.

Putting JK Rowling and her rather extreme case aside (brilliant inspiration, resentment and almost total unwillingness to co-operate on the part of the Author), we can compare Tolkien and CS Lewis. Tolkien saw glimpses of Middle Earth in dreams, or in odd turns of language, and listened painstakingly to try to reconstruct what it _meant_. CS Lewis saw brief glimpses of Narnia, or even stranger otherworlds, and then jammed them into storytelling frameworks of his own devising, which gave a less realistic, more diorama-like feel to the result. From what I recall, Tolkien was rather suspicious of this latter approach. Lewis' Muse must have been a lot more patient than Tolkien, though, given that Lewis' stories do have a lasting resonance and impact in spite of their contrived qualities. One aspect of a collaboration is obviously knowing how to adapt to the peculiarities of your partner, and mapping out the division of labour. There are many different divisions of labour that are possible.

So, if I could come back to JK Rowling and theorize -- what could a Christian Muse gain from picking someone as difficult as Rowling? -- the collaboration would obviously have to consist in trying to find ways to frame the story in a way that someone with Rowling's worldview would not resist, but would assent to on some level. Thus, more generally, crafting an (incidentally) anti-PC parable that would not trigger some kind of PC reaction. This is not necessarily immediately obvious how to do, even for a Muse, so a lot of the work would have consisted in searching out a common ground of agreement.

However, that is a crude way of putting things. In some ways, I observe that Muses have a general kind of distaste of writing to an explicit or rigidly-defined agenda. (Which would explain why there is so much God-awful fundamentalist literature out there, whether on the religious, or on the atheist side.) Perhaps beholding reality in a more direct fashion leads to a disgust with human simplifications and ideologies.

Interestingly John C Wright in his "... of Chaos" trilogy glances on the same sort of 'collaboration' view; the Greek gods who rule the visible world as a corrupt bureaucracy throw up their hands at their inability to understand or replicate the Promethean Fire granted only to mankind, and remark "our Muses need the human Poets just as much as the Poets need the Muses".

Bruce Charlton said...

@Arakawa - very interesting comment - although I don't say that "high-level artistic inspiration is strictly a one-way, automatic-writing sort of process where any attempt by the author to shape the unfolding work will only lead to ruining it." - so you don't disagree with me on that point.

Seijio Arakawa said...

My apologies; I misunderstood the comparison you were making slightly when framing my response. On closer reading, your words:

"Any attempt to interfere or reshape the external inspiration - or to select or distort the automatic writing - will result in a drying-up of the source of inspiration and loss of automatic writing ability."

... obviously refer to someone taking inspired observations and deliberately seeking to misrepresent them (rather than honestly trying to understand them). This is rather what happens between people when a journalist misrepresents someone's witness, or a critic mendaciously "deconstructs" a work to try to reverse and misrepresent things that were an unambiguous part of the author's intent. (Unsurprisingly both Tolkien and Rowling get a lot of this latter treatment.)

I think what tripped me up was the use of the term "automatic writing", which I associate more with spiritualism than any sort of artistic endeavour.

William Zeitler said...

As a composer of many decades, I have many times experienced the difference between music "I" write that is inspired vs. isn't. (Sadly, far too much of the latter. For an example of the former, see my "Prayer in the Still of the Night" http://www.williamzeitler.com/media/music/CDs/AWorldWithNoTears/AWorldWithNoTears-10-APrayerInTheStillOfTheNight.mp3 .) Your theoretical considerations are interesting, and all well and good, but from a practical point of view I would give a lot to understand how I can more consistently be a 'servant of the Muse'. It is tricky business – the Muse is so elusive and mysterious.

Only speaking of my own experience: First of all, I think it is essential to have ‘honed your craft’. You need to write a lot of uninspired music just to get the mechanics down, just to have ‘musical chops’ in place. Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. Then the Muse has something to work with. Or, you have proven your devotion. Maybe a little of both.

When the Muse graces me with inspiration, it isn’t really that much easier to write the piece. It goes somewhat more smoothly than otherwise. But as I am racking my brane for ‘now what?’, ideas that are MUCH MUCH BETTER than usual present themselves in less time. Or much bigger chunks than usual present themselves at a time.

As Handel put it "learn all the rules, then forget them."

I observe in the Bible, that the miracles are invariably a ‘collaboration’ between G-d and Man. Obviously G-d does all the heavy lifting, but He doesn’t seem to want to act miraculously without human assent or cooperation on some level. Moses has to lift his staff to part the Red Sea – G-d won’t just unilaterally part it. Jesus doesn’t feed the 5000 ex nihilo – He starts with a few loaves and fishes contributed by a little boy. Why G-d would choose to work this way eludes me. Yet more Mystery.

Steven Pressfield has written extensively on the creative process (with in the trenches practical observations and advice for creative folks) – most notably his _The War of Art_. (HIGHLY recommended for this topic.) I would paraphrase it too briefly as the first half of his book is about the inner work we have to do on our part (getting over our self-importance, and finding the courage to step into the Void), the second half concerns the mystery of making love/art with the Muse -- not a tidy formulaic process at all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WZ - "First of all, I think it is essential to have ‘honed your craft’. "

Yes - I have said this elsewhere but missed it from this particular posting - there are no geniuses who were not also highly competent in their field - that comes first.

But think of Shakespeare - who seems to have been an example tilted toward the automatic/ channelling type of genius - in that his best work just poured out of him, and his personality seems to have been so unremarkable that nobody at the time had anything to say about it.

Shakespeare the pure craftsman, minus inspiration, can be seen for much of something like Love's Labours Lost (very skilful indeed, linguistically - but a mass of maddening quibbles and pointless puns) - or the long poems that nobody ever reads.

Shakespeare min