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The paradox of inspiration

June 2, 2011

As he forgets earthly interests and is rapt in the divine, the vulgar deem
him mad, and rebuke him; they do not see that he is inspired.
Phaedrus, Plato

Such pain and such effort it cost to build a stronghold  for the
mind and the will outside the makeshifts of human society.
To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson

The labor and leisure of gutting words out onto a page. The amorphous rucksack of poetry and the crisply demarcated lines of academia. The competing Cartesian and Romantic ideals, pulsing as loudly as ever: the mind needing soundness (‘of sound mind’) to be heard and understood in poetic or critical speech, versus the mind requiring inspiration (‘of savage mind’) to move and claim a singular voice (the wide-eyed spermatozoon breaking free into the terrifying and idealized world of—what?).

These are some things I have been thinking lately.

In Plato’s Ion poetic oratory is attributed to Homeric inspiration, not art. The poet isn’t moved to sing through art, Socrates chides Ion, but by ‘power divine.’ Good workmanship makes ars a skill as obtainable as those of a physician or charioteer, but it is the sheer magnetic force between artist, orator and audience that separates a true poet from the merely skilled.

In more recent history, this magnetic attraction became tainted with the fear of the irrational. ‘Unreason was a sort of open wound,’ Foucault remarked on the crucial turn that spanned the sixteenth to eighteenth century, ‘which in theory constantly posed a threat to the link between subjectivity and truth’ (History of Madness 46). While the delirium of poets was once considered a precursor to their performance, the mushrooming of mental institutions and therapeutic treatments now presumed madness as medical and pre-criminal. The intuitive power that was so urgent as to be seraphic for Socrates eventually constituted a more sinister scourge of psychosis, a peril lurking in the domain of thinking subjects. Unitary truth was within the reach of the sane and rational.

In discerning the role that academic institutions play in the modern script of examiners versus producers (in essence, a discourse on self-formation, whether academic or artistic) one might consider how that contemporary tension encapsulates a more traditional or ‘Western’ one between Homeric fire and Cartesian cogito. The most convincing observation is that the university structure appears readily anti-Homeric: reflection, clairvoyance and solitude are less valued skills in such an atmosphere than productivity, highly skilled labor and heavy professional service. In that framework, art is not merely an inspired moment or magnetic energy waiting to be conducted through the appropriate channels, but an output that demands gainful workmanship. This paradox is best reflected in a famous expression by Somerset Maugham, who wrote only when inspiration struck; fortunately, it struck ‘every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’

I am left with some very basic observations about academic and artistic production, even as they are set in opposition to each other. An intellectual urge drives both motors: there’s a latent desire for purpose in one’s craft and however dubious the search, autonomy over one’s working conditions. Maybe this thought is just a vaccination developed in light of increasing skepticism about why the university structure favors examination and productivity over presentation and creativity. In harkening back to Platonic and then post-Enlightenment theories about inspiration, I wonder aloud whether academic institutions place examination in the domain of the rational and creative presentation in the domain of the unsound. This impression about the working environment is not exclusive to academia: the virtual world ushers in dubiously enmeshed privileges and demands. A constant, wireless internet connection is an advantage on the one hand, but an intrusive and interminable form of ‘flexi-time’ digital labor on the other.

This tension is also marked by the relation between home and estrangement and the experience of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of one’s mind. As embodied in the priestess Io, who was driven by madness from Greece to Egypt, ‘being “out” of home and all it stands for (mind, right place) is mad. Mad is outside, other, foreign’ (Ruth Padel, Whom Gods Destroy, 15).

Sometimes the frontier between inside/home and outside/elsewhere seems more conventional—think of the self-conscious publicness that can wash over someone who hasn’t left their home in a few days upon that first reach for the door. In a post titled ‘The Iliad of Broken Sentences,’ Don Share disseminated the poem ‘The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas’ by English author Rosemary Tonks, from which I’ve excerpted the opening five stanzas:

I have lived it , and lived it,
My nervous, luxury civilization,
My sugar-loving nerves have battered me to pieces.

… Their idea of literature is hopeless.
Make them drink their own poetry!
Let them eat their gross novel, full of mud.

It’s quiet; just the fresh, chilly weather… and he
Gets up from his dead bedroom, and comes in here
And digs himself into the sofa.
He stays there up to two hours in the hole—and talks
—Straight into the large subjects, he faces up to everything
It’s…… damnably depressing.
(That great lavatory coat… the cigarillo burning
In the little dish…And when he calls out: “Ha!”
Madness!—you no longer possess your own furniture.)

On my bad days (and I’m being broken
At this very moment) I speak of my ambitions… and he
Becomes intensely gloomy, with the look of something jugged,
Morose, sour, mouldering away, with lockjaw….

I grow coarser: and more modern (I, who am driven mad
By my ideas; who go nowhere;
Who dare not leave my frontdoor, lest an idea…)
All right. I admit everything, everything!

The narrator of Tonks’ poem, though living in the thoroughly modern world of domestic furniture and cigarettes, appears no less bothered by the foreignness of the inside/outside encounter than ‘mad’ Io arriving in Egypt. There’s no assurance or sure footing about this ‘nervous, luxury civilization’—is Tonks’ singular voice speaking from a ‘damnably depressing’ mental asylum? Who is the man in the narrator’s world? Likely a psychiatrist. Witness ‘that great lavatory coat’ and the exclamation of ‘Madness!’ as the so-called lunatic realizes that the difference between an institution and home is that you ‘no longer possess your own furniture’ in the former. The voice conveys a sad disgust with the place, but ultimately decides that confession is unavoidable (‘All right. I admit everything, everything!’).

Beyond this stanza, however, the speaker in Tonks’ poem breaks with the shadowy references to a lunatic asylum, recalling the cinema, the opera, the street (‘café-nerves’). The ‘he’ in the poem turns from a white-coated physician into a lover or mate (dressed in ‘dead bedroom clothes’). Where were we again?

(An obligatory speculative mention that Rosemary Tonks, b. 1932, dweller of Karachi, and discussed in the BBC Radio 4 program ‘The Poet Who Vanished‘ which I cannot access, disappeared in 1970 apparently as a convert to a form of fundamentalist Christianity, though she may be living alone in a garden shed now. Whether or not she was inspired, went mad, or simply wanted to be left in obscurity is as much a paradox of furor poeticus as any, and for the record I am not sentimentalizing it.)

Sometimes the tension is less conventional or institutional, and the intercontinental example I offer is Waly Salomão’s volume of poetry Algaravias, which I am translating. Its opening page provides a definition from Pedro Felipe Monlau’s Diccionário Etimológico de la Lengua Castellana:

From a. al-gharb, the West; algarabia, the West, people who face westward. And as that language of the Arabs was considered a. a corrupted (Arabic), little understood by the Spanish (Castilians), from here it began to be seen figuratively as something written or said in a way that one does not understand. Also a name of a plant, and it appears that it was given that name by the messiness of its branches, alluding to the confusion that the word algarabía is commonly taken to mean.

(‘ALGARABÍA. Del a. al-garb, el occidente; algarabia, el poniente, gente que vive hacia el poniente. Y como esa lengua de los alárabes era un a. corrompido, poco inteligible para los castellanos, de ahí que traslaticiamente pasase algarabía a significar cosa dicha o escrita de modo que no se entienda. Algarabia es también nombre de planta, y parece que se lo dió por la confusión de sus ramas, aludiendo al significado con que está comunmente recebida la voz algarabía. My translation.)

Allochthony is the central problem expressed in this etymology: madness is by-product of a misunderstood and ‘messy’ cackle, always originating at a distance from its present position. The condition of being ‘out of home’ rings as a reflexive echo in Algaravias with a reference to Edgar Allen Poe: ‘What is poetry? —Poetry! That Proteus-like idea.’ Proteus was endowed with the power of prophecy, but would assume different shapes—a veritable condition for his prophecy (mantike) was his madness (manike). In Phaedrus Socrates remarked on the likeness between these conditions, ‘They are really the same, and the letter t is only a modern and tasteless insertion.’

A search for literary references to Proteus led me to John Milton, who made a connection to the practice of alchemy. In Paradise Lost (III.603–06) Milton wrote of the alchemists who sought the Great Work, or turning base metals into silver and gold:

In vain, though by their powerful Art they bind

Volatile Hermes, and call up unbound
In various shapes old Proteus from the Sea,
Drain’d through a Limbec to his native form.

A ‘limbec’ or ‘limbeck’ in modern usage is an alembic (from Arabic al-inbīq الأنبيق, from Greek ambix), ‘an alchemical still consisting of two vessels connected by a tube.’

At some point I have to return (admittedly in a reflexive and black-and-white way, so what better way than ending at the beginning?) to the duel between art and academia and the extent to which belief and disbelief, science and alchemy, calculation and inspiration, and rationality and madness co-mingle in the same laboratory of the mind.

The metaphor of the two-cupped alembic as a vessel that ‘refines or transmutes, as if by distillation (“the alembic of creative thought“)’ may not be the most straightforward answer to these burgeoning thoughts, but as far as metaphors go, I’m starting there.


Addition I: ‘I would say they are objects of their own Derangement Syndrome.’ —Mark McGurl, The MFA Octopus: Four Questions About Creative Writing.

Addition II: ‘Education, it is said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket. The word comes from the Latin for “educe,” lead forth. Learning isn’t about downloading a certain quantity of information into your brain, as the proponents of online instruction seem to think. It is about the kind of interchange and incitement—the leading forth of new ideas and powers.’ —William Deresiewicz, Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education.

(Art by Richard Johnston, used with permission.)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Millicent permalink
    June 2, 2011 22:36

    This is lovely and thought-provoking. I’m glad you pointed out the tension between Cartesian and Romantic modes, because the ideological quarry of the poet prior to the Romantics was (I’d offer) pretty different terrain from “the poetic” as we understand it now. Divine inspiration functioned (in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which are the only periods I know much about) as an antidote to madness, not its synonym. Good poetry was divine poetry, meaning that it was the purview of the sane and holy. Those who kept Reason in control of Fancy and kept the latter from taking over were closer to God, who was closest to Art. (Milton’s fascination with the alembic is in large part related to his larger project of distilling good from bad not through abstinence but through rigorous experience and experiment–he saw Reason as a divine gift that allowed man to become his own alembic. (His invocations to the Muse–which he collapses with the Holy Spirit–are gorgeous and useful in this context; have you read them?)

    Madness or melancholy was, in contrast, a known consequence of too much academic reading. Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy both analyzes and performs that scholarly madness. Robert Boyle famously got sick and crazy from too much reading (romances, in his case) and had to cure himself with a healthy course of mathematics.

    In subsequent centuries it seems to me that the discourse of what constitutes “art” has shifted away (naturally enough) from the divine-as-source and the artist-as-conduit, and toward a celebration of unreason. Madness is the sane response to the Industrial Revolution, the tyranny of Reason. Art became a redemptive rupture with the dull and sane.

    It’s (in my view, anyway) an unfortunate dichotomy. As someone who tries to keep the creative and academic brains in some kind of symbiosis, there’s a reason I gravitate toward this middle period, when art wasn’t contingent on insanity and reason hadn’t become synonymous with tekne.

  2. South/South permalink*
    June 6, 2011 19:47

    ‘Good poetry was divine poetry, meaning that it was the purview of the sane and holy.’ You add a very important link between the Romantics and the Platonic ideals I was pointing out. Jumping between these relatively vast historic points seems jarring but not when one considers all these preconceptions of madness and art that have their hold in something much different than those categories as we know them today. You’re absolutely right to point to madness as a response to the Industrial Revolution (Foucault is more explicit about the sexual manifestation of that condition), though I’m not optimistic about if/how we have recovered from it.

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