4. Everywhere chaos reigns

Final piece in a four-part series exploring the shifting images of creativity in the history of western thought. Follow the links for part one, part two, and part three.

Maslow’s image of ‘integrated creativity’ can be seen as an attempt to resolve the same tension in the Romantic image of creativity that poets long strove to unite. On the one hand is the seed of inspiration, the so-called creatio ex nihilo – unwilled, unconscious, at once sublime and self-originating. On the other is the rational discipline, the learned skill and hard work needed to make the original insight a practical reality. To put it another way, the imagination of Dionysius alone is ungoverned and wild, requiring the intervention of Apollo’s discriminating temperament, while the latter relies on the former’s liberating spirit in order to bring inspired novelty down to terra firma. In short, inspiration without discipline is madness; discipline devoid of inspiration lacks originality.

In Coleridge’s mind, this difference was one of degree which distinguished the divine faculty of Primary Imagination from the creative synthesis of the Secondary Imagination (leaving aside the empty adumbrations of Fancy, which, on its own, was an ‘adulterator and counterfeiter of memory’ that had closer kinship with associationist ideals). But where the Romantic synthesis of imagination swung between the poles of a liberated human soul and established poetic convention, the twentieth century humanistic paradigm located creativity in the meaningful exchange between an evolving subject and its relationally constituted world.
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3. Actualising tendencies

Part three in a four-part series exploring the shifting images of creativity in the history of western thought. Follow the links for part one and part two.

Behaviourism dominated laboratory research in the first half of the twentieth century, while more minded psychologists turned to Freud’s high-pressure ‘hydraulic’ image of the psyche to explain the foundations of human creativity. But the seed of revolt had already been sown at the inception of the Vienna School of Psychoanalysis, and one by one its core members began to question Freud’s insistence that libidinal instincts could fully explain creative behaviour.

The first analyst to be excommunicated for his ‘deviant’ beliefs was the physician Alfred Adler. Adler felt that Freud’s theories unduly isolated the psyche from the rest of the world and ignored the importance of healthy social relations in psychological maturation, and to account for this influence the individual had to be studied holistically, not reduced to a collection of sexual drives. In Adler’s view, people were not determined by their experiences, sexual or otherwise, but self-determined by virtue of the meaning they gave to them, and it was the job of the therapist to help the patient recognise this. In so doing, the therapist effectively handed back the individual’s ‘power to will’, a creative drive that Adler identified with the life force and which he believed enabled human beings to naturally overcome social problems.

The second heretic of the Vienna School was its secretary, Freud’s right-hand man, Otto Rank. Rank accepted the role of the unconscious in psychic life but bemoaned Freud’s reduction of emotion to sexual impulses, which led to ‘an unnatural elimination of all human factors in the analysis’. Emotions, said Rank, were basically relationships, and a denial of the emotional life led to a denial of the will – the source of creativity – as well as a denial of the interpersonal relationship in the analytic situation. Since all emotions were grounded in the present, Rank felt Freud robbed his patients of the emotional will to change their behaviour by locating their repression in the past, and an orientation toward the here and now was called for.
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Acid flower

Full colour visions

Parmenides, who is often referred to as the father of metaphysics, steadfastly believed in a colourless reality. He denied that things in the world are coloured, let alone change colour. In his poem On Nature, the Eleatic adjudges those who believe otherwise to be victims of a falsehood or ‘naming error’, borne out of an all-too-human tendency to confuse appearance for reality.

…To these things all will be a name, which mortals establish, having been persuaded they are real: to come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, and to change location and exchange bright colour throughout.

Living around 500 BC, Parmenides was likely the first philosopher to argue a kind of colour eliminativism, the view which denies that physical objects have any properties that can be identified with colours. His position was the logical entailment of a purely rationalist account of reality that worked out the radical implications of the concept of Being. This led him to declare that true reality is One – unitary, unchanging, and eternal – and that all claims about diversity, qualities, motion, and change are false.1

Modern-day colour eliminativists operate on a different, albeit distantly related metaphysical schism that also divides appearance from reality: a Galilean ontology that carves up phenomenal experience into ‘primary qualities’ and ‘secondary qualities’. According to Galileo’s perceptual schema, primary qualities include extension, shape, size and motion, which are objective properties of objects. Secondary qualities on the other hand include colour, sound, smell, and taste, which are no more than mental constructions that have no resemblance to anything in reality, save for the ‘dispositions’ of things to cause them in our perception.
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imagination nature itself

2. “Nature is imagination itself”

Part two in a four-part series exploring the shifting images of creativity in the history of western thought. Click here for part one.

It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that the idea of self-originating novelty gained wider acceptance, when in the wake of Immanuel Kant’s idealist philosophy, the Romantics granted creative imagination a pivotal life of its own. Inspired by Kant’s Aristotelian concept of the imagination as a unifying organ of consciousness, Coleridge famously declared the Romantic Imagination ‘the prime agent of all human perception’, wedding the finite mind with the eternal in its infinitely productive capacity. Around this period, theories of aesthetics were moving away from the traditional neo-classical image of art as a ‘mirror of nature’ and began to shift attention for the first time toward the artist, placing higher importance on self-expression as a mark of ‘sincerity’ or originality, an ideal that preoccupied Romantic thinkers more so than any other intellectual movement before or since.

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

Contemporary critics often deride Wordsworth for his ‘morbid’ tendency to taint the appearances of Nature with the pathetic fallacy of anthropomorphic projections. But for the Romantic poets, this ‘sense sublime / of something far more deeply interfused’ was the genetic wellspring of poetic images, not simply because of its spontaneity, but in its acting as an evocative muse for the poet’s imaginative expression. As Blake saw it, ‘To the eyes of a man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.’ Romantic poetry was therefore a perfect union of spontaneous impulse and voluntary will which became greater than the sum of its parts in the act of invention, granting agency to the poet and simultaneously internalising the divine inspiration that for the Greeks had been a sign of genius.1 Keep reading

1. The threads of fatalism

In philosophy, the imagination has traditionally been likened to a faculty or agent, but these metaphors fail to capture the pure activity of imagination, which is the simple generation of images. The imagination is perfectly indistinguishable from the movement of images ‘within’ it. Instead of asking what the imagination is, then, we should ask what the imagination does, which is to say we should consider the dynamics implicit in every act of imagining (or imaging) as it unfolds through experience.

Images allow the body to make sense of its life-world, which is both contextually situated and continually in transformation. Imagining in this way relates us to our environment, which is co-constituted by this very same image-making capacity of the body. Imaginative acts are therefore both creative and ecological.

Now let us fold this dual aspect of imagination back upon itself by asking what kinds of ecologies have contributed to our “commonsense” image of creativity. Let us explore how this image of creativity has evolved in response to perturbations across shifting social, cultural and historical contingencies. Keep reading

2. Hymn to Iacchus

The date on which the Rites of Eleusis began is as uncertain as the name of their founder, but we do know that they were observed annually from around 1450 BCE to 390 CE, and were broken into two events that occurred at different times of the year.

The so-called Lesser Mysteries took place in the spring, at a suburb of Athens called Agrae, and involved a purification rite that qualified candidates for their upcoming initiation. After paying the requisite fees to the high priests and organisers, each participant was required to sacrifice a piglet to the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone, and then ritually purify themselves in the nearby river Illisos. This occult drama was said to wash away the sufferings of a soul tethered to a material body, and make initiates worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries, which occurred at Eleusis during September, near the time of the autumnal equinox. Keep reading


Evolving the image of the in-between

As a species, we are obsessed with means – not means to ends, but means to other means. We desire to possess that new thing – the latest phone, the shiny new car, the means to get to where we want to be, mentally, physically, as fast as humanly possible. In the back of our minds we believe that to reach this end will somehow complete us; that everything in our lives will converge upon a single sublime event in the not-so-distant future. But when arrival is near and victory is a hair’s breadth within our grasp, the end transforms before our eyes into yet another means – a means to yet another end. We never quite reach the endpoint.

In anthropology, it is the defining habit of homo faber – the creator of tools that spawn more tools that never quite finish the job. What is the job? It is quite simply the dis-ease of our age, that lurching sense of lack in the pit of our stomachs which subconsciously equates action with life and passivity with non-existence.

In philosophy, it is the division of being and nonbeing, a dialectic of formal opposition that possesses an implicit geometry. It invokes an inside and an outside, an architecture of thought whose shadow is alienation and whose face is hostility. The inside is of course sovereign – it represents the interior, being, the centre, the self, the here as opposed to there. There on the other hand is infinitely open; it is the outside, the vacuity of nonbeing, the space where any ‘thing’ is nothing but a point in its movement, and where its stability is just movement indefinitely slowed down.

But just as too many degrees of freedom can prove stifling, too much space smothers us more than if there was not enough. We feel a sudden uneasiness. Like the kissing faces that form the outline of a chalice, we experience the flicker of a gestalt switch and an inability to distinguish between inside and outside. Caught in a Möbius strip, we ask, is the inside outside? Open or closed? Am I here or there? The centre wavers and trembles. We have crossed into the realm of the half-open, the threshold of a two-way dream. Keep reading

1. The Mystery Religions in Greek Antiquity

Being self-conscious humans, we don’t just think; we think we think. We reflect upon our thinking by manipulating symbol systems, which ground our ability to reason. Whether this reasoning ability discloses the ‘true’ state of affairs in the world is a question best left unanswered, since to ask it at all involves the presupposition that the question is reasonable to begin with. On the other hand, we can think of our self-reflective faculty in purely pragmatic terms, since reason alone allows us to register patterns in experience and make long-term predictions based on them which are of inestimable aid to survival.

Looking at it this way however immediately surfaces a grim inevitability. For just as the classic syllogism concludes of Socrates, the foresight which reason enables ultimately reveals man’s mortality to man. Stated simply, we know that eventually we are going to die. Perhaps this is why in the Phaedo Plato’s Socrates claims that those who genuinely follow a philosophy of wisdom ‘pursue the study of nothing else but dying and being dead’. For without wisdom we are powerless to reconcile mortal anxiety with the transient but untroubled forms of nature and are likely to come to the desperate conclusion that our perspective is somehow skewed. Keep reading

Dreams of flight

In the Phaedrus, the character Socrates describes the human soul in its intermediary state as like a winged chariot ascending toward the ridge of heaven to behold the everlasting knowledge of the Forms. The two horses pulling the chariot symbolise the soul’s lofty and lowly impulses, while the charioteer represents intellect or reason, pointing the soul in the direction of eternal truth by keeping its disparate forces in check.

In Plato’s allegory, it is the equine wings that allow the chariot to soar upwards and enter into the realm of the gods. By signifying self-movement, their presence reflects the soul’s divine nature more so than any other aspect of the vessel. For if the horses do not submit to the charioteer’s whip, their celestial pinions wither, the soul-chariot falls back to earth, and to the mutability of another material incarnation. This is why the intelligence of the philosopher is said to ‘become winged’ when the mind is concentrated on the memory of its prior incorporeal existence.

For the Greeks, ecstasy or ekstasis referred to the flight of the soul from the body, but almost any image of natural flight can become an uplifting force for the ecstatic imagination. When a swallow glides and wheels above the horizon, its body appears made out of the air that surrounds it. Its youthful movement captures an instinctive bliss that evokes in the psyche a purely aerial state seldom experienced, except perhaps in dreams. The sight of this embodied force, perfectly attuned to the most rarified of elements, snatches us away from the linear travails of earth and transports us to a place where age no longer weighs us down. Embracing verticality, the bird in flight makes us forget time.

This is not a protest

A recent stroll around the city of York led to a serendipitous pint at the Guy Fawkes Inn, the birthplace of the infamous anti-establishmentarian, and the only establishment in the city still illuminated by gas lamp.

The subdued Victorian lighting lends the bar an antiquated charm. The walls are painted black to hide the staining haloes of accumulated soot around the forged iron filaments, and in the corners of the rooms stands medieval armour (including a complete suit that looks unnervingly like a Slayer of the Black Fortress from the fantasy world of Krull). Keep reading