Saturday, July 16, 2011

Possession: artists and inspiration

Possession: artists and inspiration
or Dionysus aroused, awakened, ablaze…
(The Romantic / Mythological project, continued...)

A creative person is always most excited when something happens that he cannot explain, something mysterious or miraculous. Then he is very nervous. (Stockhausen)

[from Music and Inspiration, Jonathan Harvey. Faber, 1999]

Having read Whitman for over 20 years (more than half my life), I question if I may be possessed by part of his spirit. Since such saints manifest their spirits in countless ways, unconstrained by time or space, era or locale, it is a literal and figurative possibility.

Meaning is articulated using language. Life is experienced, processed and understood through language. And all language is potentially poetic, by its essence, creative. Ergo, “creative writing” is redundant. It can be a useful distinction for categorizing. But anything we categorize can more easily be dismissed, discarded, or merely ignored. Thus “creative writing” can be filed inferior to “factual” or “scientific” writing, which purports to be intellectually superior because “closer to the truth” of so-called “facts.”

The linguistic or philological discursion is purposeful, as I hope to show. Poetry is an excellent place to start for aspects & approaches towards “truth” in “creative writing.” Poetry can describe actual occurrences (a spider spinning a web) and simultaneously describe the metaphysical processes of the soul. For me, no poet brings together these worlds better than Whitman.

A noiseless, patient spider was perhaps the first poem I memorized. And the man who helped me learn to love poetry was my HS (sophomore year) English teacher, Mr. Vaughan. He was one of the first of many inspiring teachers & mentors I’ve been privileged to have. Do I appreciate him more now because I recognize his affirmation of intelligence, his encouragement of creative expression as being among the virtues I prize the most?

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to
connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

What a great little poem that is! Resonant with truth and open to possibility, the poem flings itself forth with the faith its filaments will “catch somewhere.” With characteristic poetic “musing” Whitman connects “the spheres” of the elusive, enigmatic soul to the natural world of the “noiseless patient spider” (and what a beautiful description, vividly imagining the natural world and awaking our senses to it). Whitman’s spider connects the earth to the “measureless oceans of space” beyond, the “once upon a time” of ancient stories and imagined galaxies of the science fiction future. Some call the beyond “heaven,” others “the heavens” and some just gesture in the direction of “out there.” The poem is always both / and. It always means on multiple levels.

Why don’t we allow the white-bearded bard to possess more of us (more of the time)? One of the all-time great Americans, great patriots, great humanitarians and one of our country’s – and the world’s! – great poets, Whitman is among the most original voices the earth has known…

Does his earthy and profane, excessive and provocative, frankly and boldly sensual, category-defying, universe-embracing, indiscriminately welcoming, positively affirming voice offend us? Scare us away? Scratch too close to the surfaces of the itchy shadows we’d rather not discuss (like faith, sexuality, government & war)?

As a volunteer nurse working for both sides during the Civil War, he attended to over 30,000 injured soldiers. Who can oppose such generous humanity? Is that not the essence, the embodiment of compassionate, agape, “brotherly” love? Who would cast a stone towards Walt Whitman?

He opens up worlds because he contains them in his all-encompassing embrace.

Such openness requires keen intelligence, strong will and patient resolve. Maintaining the tensions inherent in ambivalence, living with the dynamic irony of life’s paradoxes, and balancing the “contraries,” without which there is no progression (as the poet William Blake philosophically mused).

I love quoting Whitman’s response to protestations over his openness (past, present & future), his rebuttal of flimsy accusations of inconsistency, relative-ness & transience:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then … I contradict myself.
I am large… I contain multitudes.

Of course, such large inspiration causes an all-consuming creative impulse to flare. Puccini wrote of the creative process approximating or even inducing illness.

When fever abates, it ends by disappearing, and without fever there is no creation; because emotional art is a kind of malady…an over-excitation of every fibre and every atom of one’s being, and so on, ad aeternum.

As I have been intimating & suggesting in my musings on Romanticism, the “romantic” notion of “emotional” art is a more universal one than our dismissive attitude towards the “romantic” type, label & symbol allows.

Last year I began reading (and naturally, quoting from) The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist’s new book subtitled “The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World” (Yale, 2010). This neuro-imaging doctor (Johns Hopkins), clinical psychiatrist and Oxford Fellow in Literature casts out wonderful filaments and weaves them compellingly together.

To paraphrase, the left-hemisphere generally refers to the Apollonian, rational, thinking, bourgeois “half” of the brain dialectic. The “right brain” is associated with Dionysus and creativity, the emotions and all those other subjective, affective, soul-full and heart-felt aspects that do make us wonderfully, uniquely human. It is the right brain that connects the non-linear dots to make the “self” and the “world” in which it lives. The left-brain keeps the to-do list, and almost exclusively follows the oversimplified binary “logic” called Cartesian.

One of the tics, or tricks, whereby we nowadays dismiss anything that does not fit with the left-hemisphere view of the world, is to label it ‘Romantic.’ Having done that we feel we have pulled the guts out of it. We have consigned it to a culture-bound view of the world which was relatively short-lived… and long passé, with for good measure, hints of excess, sentimentality and lack of intellectual rigor thrown in…

McGilchrist maintains Romanticism is the historical era in our Euro-American development that most nearly approaches the cultural, scientific and humanist zenith we identify with the Renaissance. I would crown the Romantic era (and the artists in its wake, like Whitman, Rilke, Mahler & Hesse, to name just a few) as our highest achievement. That is a position likely to be criticized as reactionary by the left, and dismissed as quaint or trite by the right. Generally speaking. Or metaphorically. Or both / and…McGilchrist continues

…what we dismiss as Romantic may be less limited in time and space than we imagine. In the Renaissance, the unconscious, involuntary, intuitive and implicit, that which cannot be formalized, or instilled into others by processes governed by rules, and cannot be made to obey the will, was respected and courted. All the qualities that are admired in the artist are those that come from the right hemisphere, including the skill that hides itself. They are all to be found later in Romanticism, it is true: but it will not do to bundle up half of human experience as ‘Romantic’ with an intention to dismiss it.

Aha! Well said, my dear Dr Sir! Do I thus approve because I am possessed of romantic spirits, or am I possessed by romantic spirits because I am “that kind of person” who would grant such preposterousness credence to begin? By my troth, it matters not…

Do I feel like the title character of Hesse’s Steppenwolf because I have reread him and incorporated his philosophy and poetry into my teaching and creative work? Am I “possessed” like a mad “wolf of the steppes” to even ask such questions?

Whitman approaches Steppenwolf’s realm when he writes in the 8th canto (“song,” stanza or verse) of Song of Myself:

What living & buried speech is always vibrating here, what
howls restrain’d by decorum?

In tribute to Cy Twombly (1928- July 5, 2011), mention should be made of his series of bold Bacchus canvases, vermilion red. Fire and blood. Eros and Thanatos (love & death) in one brilliant, potent color. Twombly is one of those artists unrestrained by decorum. “Engorged and overflowing with paint” is how Nicholas Cullinan describes “some of the most liquid” paintings in Twombly’s prolific 60-year career. (Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons. Tate, 2008)

Bacchus (Dionysus) embodies for Twombly the “ecstatic impulse.” An artist possessed by inspiration, in a rare statement about his work, the notoriously elusive and enigmatic Twombly wrote in 1957

To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse.

Harvey’s marvelous book (Music and Inspiration, with which we began) draws on the experience of modern composers as much as it does on the much-celebrated pantheon of great 19th century artists. Beethoven and Berlioz, Heine & Liszt, Whitman and Wagner all speak the “extravagant” tongues of the “Romantic” era. And as McGilchrist reminds us, the consistency of that message is too important to be routinely labeled, filed and forgotten.

The “imperious necessity” which “drives the artist to that fanatical stubbornness” (Wagner) is “not restricted to the Romantic period,” Harvey observes. After quoting from Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, Harvey concludes:

There is a striking consensus among composers that unconscious inspiration – or instinct – is both a necessary part of the creative process and an infallible guide when compositional decisions have to be made. It is exciting, intoxicating, lucid, as seductive and sometimes as fatal as a siren, wayward, elusive, yet essential and infallible to the point of divinity.

Harvey then shares examples of how inspiration “builds itself up,” how the creative process… “ferments…by much preoccupation, engrossment with self, a being-dead to the outer world.” Mahler’s description articulates again another aspect of the Steppenwolf’s dialectic with the bourgeois “outer world” in which the creative artist never completely feels at ease or at home.

Inspiration “would flash into his mind” as the creative “eyes take fire.” Henze writes “he must come out of his shell, express his innermost self and yield up everything…”

The yielding up of everything from within is difficult at best, and as we know from every tradition we have, dangerous. Getting in touch with the “innermost self” is one of the reasons to embark not only on the artistic journey but on the individual one.

The romantic concept of the “inward journey” has been fraught with peril - like Harry Potter facing Valdemort – since it was first introduced within our species a few millennia ago through the world’s religions and foundational stories, also known as myth.

All these traditions – from the Old Testament Psalms across the Babylonian & Mesopotamian tales, from Homer to Plato to St Paul, from Dante to Don Quixote and beyond, the “hero’s journey” into and through darkness to light, life and newness is the way to salvation / enlightenment / nirvana because it is the individual’s path. Moses, Christ, Buddha, Ulysses, Aeneas, Alice, Frodo, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Harry Potter all must face the dark forces, “do the right thing” and return to life in order to “share the boon” (as Joseph Campbell persuasively argues).

I tried to weave this particular strand of artistic inspiration into a little poem yesterday, in honor of the entire generation of young people – and their families – who have had the opportunity to grow up with Harry Potter. Though a late convert to the joys of this strangely familiar universe, Harry, his friends and “the order of the Phoenix” are characters right out of mythology and they are us. So brush up that mythology, mom & dad, in order to answer those questions about strange animals with wonderfully mysterious gifts. Hippogriffs are derived from the Griffins / Gryphons of mythology and reappear down the rabbit hole. Like Unicorns and wise Owls, they are everywhere equally adept at helping your child learn life’s lessons...

It’s not easy being the
chosen one, is it Harry?
Even magic cannot always
overcome the dark forces
stirring like threatening storms
surrounding us in haze
confounding us in fog…
Like Luke using the force
like comic book superheroes
battling their shadows to
earn the letter, cape and
title even though
it means donning yet
another mask. Where is
the professor to remind
us of the thousand faces
our best selves assume
to reveal their true essence
of light, love and god…

How did we get to Harry Potter? The “launched forth” filaments out of ourselves take us everywhere if we let them. Sometimes it feels like we’re possessed by a power, or force or voice or spirit. Sometimes it’s the “still, small voice” and sometimes it’s a werewolf hidden within ourselves we must face.

One of the strands I intend to muse on is the connection between American patriotism, the hero’s journey, the underdog and the superhero. Special effects might come in handy for such an enterprise. All this magic, myth and inspiration can seem a bit surreal at times.

I’ll close with one of the strongest (and strangest) voices of inspired surrealism the world has known. An artist too visionary to be dismissed as “simply” provocative or “positively” decadent. Salvador Dalí, an important anti-fascist artist (and enfant terrible, a notorious provocateur… therefore an artist whose range and depth reminds us of Whitman, Poe, Kafka, Goya, Dostoyevsky and among others, Shakespeare).

Writing in New York at the outset of World War II (like the prophet implied in the moniker “visionary” and with a sage’s wisdom where mythological references are concerned, thus reminding us of our own roots where “the city of brotherly love” and “liberty” are concerned), the “crazy Spaniard” wrote:


(quoted in Salvador Dalí: The Paintings. Descharnes / Néret, Taschen, 1994, 2006).

Philistine civil servants in the Ministry of Magic beware! The order of the Phoenix may again be on the rise joining the mythological realm to the romantic revolution as inspiration possesses more open-minded souls to use their superpowers to ward off evil!