Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What of the Mind?

Poet Mike Todd poses three inter-related questions:

• what role does the subconscious mind play in the creative act?
• how does the subconscious mind differ from the conscious mind in respect to its cognition of language?
• how valid is the statement "the conscious mind thinks at the speed of speech"?


Okay, you just knew some C.G. Jung was going to get quoted here, didn't you?

Until recently psychological empiricism was fond of explaining the "unconscious" (as indeed the term itself implies) as the mere absence of consciousness, as shade in absence of light. But it is recognized not only by all the ages before us but also by present-day exact observation of unconscious processes that the unconscious has a certain creative autonomy which could never belong to a mere shadow nature. (Collected Works XLVI, 152 ff.)

We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features. It is not a question of mere optical reflection but of an autonomous answer which reveals the self-sufficing nature of that which answers. (CW LVIII, 44)

The unconscious is not a demonic monster but a thing of nature that is perfectly neutral as far as moral sense, aesthetic taste, and intellectual judgment go. It is dangerous only when our conscious attitude towards it becomes hopelessly false. And this danger grows in the measure that we practice repressions. (CW XXVII, 89 ff.)

As for the unconscious mind being a source of creativity, it is perhaps the source of creativity. It is the voice the gods, and perhaps the muses, speak through. It is the "voice of the gods" speaking to us from the compartmentalized mind, that pulls the hero into vision and gives the oracle the words to say what needs to happen next. (cf. Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which is all about this process.)

Audrey Flack writes in Art and Soul: Notes on Creating:

Sometimes the artist is not the final control. She absorbs the basic tenets of the age in whic she lives, creating an assemblage. This subconscious assimilation of the flavor of the age, combined with archetypal concepts, is poured out in the form of art. (p. 25)

A shaman is someone who has been through the fire, who has been ill and healed himself. The shaman can then return and heal others. Jackson Pollack was a lost shaman.

He committed a public suicide. But it wasn't art that killed him.

Had Pollack retained a joy for painting, it could have saved him. Because of his inner personal turmoil, combined with the tearing and wrenching of the "art world," it became more and more difficult for him to paint. He would wait for hte very last moment to complete a show, staying up all night drinking, abusing himself. Art could have saved him. He lost his way.
(p. 98)

Janet O. Dallett writes in her book When the Spirits Come Back as both an artist and a trained Jungian analyst, from the chapter entitled Shaman, Artist, Lunatic, Thief:

... Now, seeing what I can only describe as an inductive effect of [my paintings hung on the walls of the cafe/gallery] on others' psyches, I became aware that it made an opening into another world for people from all walks of life, people who would not ordinarily be motivated to discuss their dreams or to give conscious attention to the spirit world in any way.

As I sat in the cafe that day I fell deep into deja vu. A few years earlier, when I began reading my poetry in public, many people had seemed puzzled by the work and some had expressed strong feelings of discomfort with it, just as some did now with my paintings. Simultaneously, then as now, others had reported that their creativity was remarkably stimulated by mine. Reflecting upon these events, I understood for the first time that a certain kind of work, resembling what Jung calls "visionary art," functions in much the same way as the shaman in tribal societies. That is, some art is shamanic in function. Formed from collective unconscious material, it activates the unconscious of its audience and mobilizes the psyche's self-healing capacities. It opens the door to a different reality, the world of dreams and imagination, and "spirits" silently pass into the world of every day, affecting people in unexpected ways.

Shamanic art undermines unexamined cultural assumptions. For this reason it disturbs some people and may even arouse rage. Those who are open to it, however, often find that it sets their own creativity in motion.

Such art tends to be prophetic. It asks, even insists, on being heard, just as shamans are compelled to tell about their inner experiences when they begin to apply what they have learned about healing themselves to the healing of others. The visionary creative act is not complete until it finds an audience, coming out into the world and disturbing the complacent surface of collective consciousnes. If the process is blocked, one outcome may be psychosis. Cancer may be another.

Shamanic art brings *eros* values to the healing of the psyche. That is, unlike traditional clinical psychology and psychiatry, it is more concerned with connecting and making whole than with the *logos* values of dissecting and understanding. It is related to a form of psychotherapy that interprets rarely, seeking instead to set in motion a symbolic process that has its own unforeseeable healing goal. Understanding of behavior is important only to the extent that it serves a living relationship to deep levels of the psyche. Since it is fundamentally creative, this approach to psychotherapy sacrifices the claim to clarity, undermines unexamined asumptions and is more disturbing to than supportive of conformity. The soul of the shaman lies equally behind the visionary artist and the therapist who works in this way. If the shamanic type of therapist ceases to live her own creative life, the capacity to function in healing ways becomes lost and may even turn destructive.
When the Spirits Come Back, pp. 36-37

And Jung again, this time directly on art and creativity:

Every creative man is a duality or synthesis of paradoxical qualities. On the one hand he is human-personal, on the other hand an impersonal-creative process. As a human being he may be healthy or morbid; his personal psychology can and should be explained, therefore, in a perosnal way. But as an artist he can only be understood through his creative act. (CW XVI, 327)

The artist is the mouthpiece of the secrets of the psyche of his time—involuntarily, like every true prophet, and often unconsciously, liek a sleepwalker. He believes himself to be speaking out of himself, but the spirit of the age speaks through him, and what it says is so, for it works. (CW XXVII, 150)

Whether the poet knows that his work is generated in him and grows and ripens there, or whether he imagines that he creates out of his own will and from nothingness, it changes in no way the curious fact that his work grows beyond him. It is, in relation to him, like a child to its mother.

Well, those were the oblique, indirect answers to the questions at hand. I often find taking an oblique approach to be very useful.

For myself, I would have this to say:

1. the role the subconscious plays in the creative act is essential, seminal, and huge; the Muses live there, and the gods, as well as the Dragons; the act of being creative, when it feels like dictation, is driven from there. I have once or twice been the receiver of poems that felt like they were being dictated to me; and whence else do they arise? But "subconscious" is the wrong word, for the truth is that the conscious mind is the smallest part of the whole system that is the Self; and "sub" implies beneath, which is only true for part of that whole Self, as there are other parts that are trans-conscious rather than sub-conscious.

2. language is very much the realm of the conscious mind; the unconscious mind uses language in a completely different way, if indeed it uses words at all; mostly, it uses images, and is often pre-verbal. it uses a symbolic, resonant picture-language. The language of dreams is this language. The conscious mind, with its tendency towards rational logic systems, tends to over-value language and words; but each night, we dream, and when we dream we are sometimes bereft of words entirely—yet it is no loss, as we still go on, and experience all of dream-life in other languages than just the verbal.

3. "the conscious mind thinks at the speed of speech"—I think that is usually true, but even the conscious mind, if the intuition is trained, can skip steps and arrive at the proper conclusion without having to parse through all the intervening steps. Call it intuitive logic, call it interval thinking—it's a valid and trainable skill, involving training both the conscious mind and the intuitive mind in harness, to work together, in tandem.

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