Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Inspiration or madness...Part one and a half

It continues to be a deep, deep subject to ponder, this one of inspiration and muses and where these colliding ideas and urges to make, to create, come from.  There are many new entries into the moveable feast, so I'll be mulling over it a while yet I suspect.  While sitting outside enjoying the winter sunshine yesterday, I re-read THIS article, by Niko Sylvester, from the Journal of Mythic Arts.  Terri recommended it in the comments section of her post on Inspiration.  It's a fascinating article to read at any time, I read it years ago and it was a joy to come back to it and discover new things.  One quote that leapt out at me was an idea from Leslie Ellen Jones' book, Druid, Shaman, Priest: Metaphors of Celtic Paganism.  Sylvester writes:
one of the primary functions of the shaman is to mediate between the mortal world and the Otherworld. Jones comments that "The Otherworld can perhaps be regarded as a psychological state related through language", making a poet a natural choice for shaman. This psychological state is another state of consciousness that alters the perception of reality. In normal life, we live in consensus reality, the purpose of which is "to provide a structure for filtering masses of potentially perceptible raw data into a manageable flow that offers enough information about the environment to enable us to function, but not so much information as to be overwhelming." A shaman is able to leave consensus reality and enter another state; "an altered state is merely a different filtering of the same mass of available data." 
Now this makes sense!  The idea of a 'consensus reality', essentially a version of reality that we all agree to adhere to (without really having much choice I suppose, society teaches us and we believe), in order for society to run smoothly.  But one that you can step out of, because it's really just one way of thinking out of infinite possibilities.  I'm not a psychologist, but I imagine it as some kind of highway we're all on, we're all travelling in the same direction, going approximately the same speed, seeing the same landmarks from the same point of view.  But you can get off it.  You can take a side exit, head down a disused track, step away and look at the highway streaming past from outside of it.  See those landmarks from a new vista.  Take the scenic route, so to speak.  Which might explain why it always seems to take me so much longer to do the normal, ordinary, everyday stuff (like housework!), because I'm on the slow road to somewhere else in my head!  The ideal situation would be that you can choose opportune moments to 'sidetrack' and then pop back into line and catch up with everyone else.  I suspect the problem is that sometimes you don't really choose.  The sidetrack appears and before you know it you're off on an adventure somewhere, and then sometimes it takes a real effort to find your way back onto the highway, at least in time to get dinner on, or pick the kids up from school.  Maybe that's the sliding scale between creativity and so-called 'madness'.  Healthy creative people can pick their moments and find their way back easily.  People suffering from mental health problems may not realise they've gone off on the track at all, or may find themselves hopelessly lost.  I've probably taken that metaphor as far as it can go, but it made me think.  Especially after reading about 'Translogical Thinking' yesterday.  It seems to fit nicely with that concept.

Today I went back to a book that I read a couple years ago, The Brain that Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge.  Fascinating stuff, it discusses new discoveries in Neuro research that overturn older ideas that the adult brain was hardwired and incapable of change.  Instead, it talks about 'neuroplasticity', the flexible, malleable, changeable brain, that is capable of re-wiring itself, and more interestingly for this discussion, mentions some pretty weird and bizarre things that have been discovered.  That is is quite easy, for example, with the help of simple illusions, to trick a healthy person's brain into believing that a wooden table is part of their anatomy, even when that person is well aware that it cannot be.  That 'normal' people who are denied sight even for just a few days, can develop extremely acute hearing and tactile senses as the 'visual cortices' that aren't being used for sight take over some of those tasks, thus increasing the amount of 'brain power' (so to speak) that is given over to handling aural and tactile input.  And that many started to experience very vivid, strange hallucinations as they moved around, heard sounds, or were touched.  The fact that autistic people can often hear things that 'normal' people cannot, and find sounds that don't bother us utterly deafening, suggests (to me at least), that 'normal' people might not be getting the full dose of reality at all, but rather a filtered version.  Filtered through a brain that is shaped and altered by the experiences it has, and importantly, by the culture it develops in.  So while our brains may shape our culture, our culture also shapes our brains, and therefore must shape our perception of reality.  It seems to me that definitions of what is 'reality' and what is a 'normal' brain all start to look very...fuzzy.

What I also noticed in the book, was the number of times phrases like, "Dr Such-and-such was the first to see the link between...", "Professor Thingummy made the connection...", "Dr Whatsit saw the affect this had and wondered if it could be applied to..."  Which all sound to me like different ways of describing 'Translogical Thinking.'  And they're phrases we're very familiar with when it comes to speaking about scientific breakthroughs, new discoveries, exciting medical research and so on.  So while maybe creative people's brains have similarities to people suffering from various mental illnesses, it's pretty clear that these abilities are vital to the development of humanity and civilisation.  I guess, as in the case of so many other things, it comes down to a balancing act.  Too far one way and mental illness and psychosis might be the result.  But too far the other and we might still be living in trees.

So...where does that leave inspiration and the muse?  Perhaps the muse is just the whisper of synapses firing in unusual combinations in the brain.  Perhaps the muse actually exists as a real, physical entity who keeps you awake at night with shreds of ideas and characters and paintings that need to be created, an entity that 'normal' brains can't see/hear/feel because it's their brains that don't work properly, or at least, don't show them the whole of reality because they couldn't handle it...oh I'm just being cheeky now, as I've managed to include myself in both camps throughout the course of this argument!

Or maybe it's both...or neither...or something else entirely that we can't even begin to comprehend.  In any case, though perhaps I pay a price in more ups and downs, more dark fallow times, more times of doubt and fear that my talent amounts to nothing, than the 'average person' (if indeed they exist), I would not trade my delight in indulging in 'translogical thinking', in getting off the highway into the interesting sidetracks, and in listening to the whispers of the muse, for what might be an easier, and more....normal?!...way of thinking.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Inspiration or madness...or both?

Ahhh, a new moveable feast is arising, starting on Terri Windling's blog with a wonderful post "On Artistic Inspiration."  There she discusses the strange relationship the artist has with the 'muse', with the worlds they are creating (through words or paints or music or whatever), and how sometimes it can seem more than a little like madness.  But what is considered madness these days was in the past sometimes considered to be the ability to 'walk between the worlds', to enter the underworld or another spiritual dimension, to contact other beings and most importantly, return bringing all they have learnt back to their people.  The path of the shaman.

Most of us who are likely to be reading this will be well aware of the contradictions this presents.  We live in the modern age, a rational/logical society that has, mostly, eschewed 'superstition' and the notion of a spirit filled world.  Or at least, it likes to think it has, and does not treat those who disagree kindly.  The trouble is, as Howard Gayton (Terri's husband) mentions in his interview with Brian and Wendy Froud, artists "often do live in two worlds," and that second world is frequently not in the slightest bit logical and rational.

As Howard also mentions, "It is a fine line to walk when you are dealing with these principles, treading between what is believable and what is not. When I read about magical principals, a part of me thinks: this is definitely true; and another part thinks: no, this is mad. It's like living in two worlds at once."  I find this happens to me often, as if I have two voices in my head (perhaps an argument between the left side of my brain and the right?!), one leans in closer and says "Wow, tell me more," and at the same time, another voice is standing back and scoffing at the silliness of it.  Yes, I have Mulder and Scully inside my brain!  I can often be pretty cynical about new age type spirituality.  My default reaction to people who claim to channel spirits from Atlantis, or beings from the planet Sirius, is generally "Yeah right, and I suppose you were Cleopatra in a previous life too."  The trouble is, as an artist (and interestingly enough, as a singer), I've had that feeling of someone/thing working through me to create.  Something I can't pin down, I can't put my finger on.  It's illusive and mutable and inconstant.  But I create work, not all the time, but often enough, that seems to come from somewhere else and I almost feel guilty putting my name on it.  The fact that sometimes I create artworks that can trigger deep feelings for someone else, that they see things in my art that seem magical and full of strange meaning, doesn't surprise me because I think that's what art is supposed to do.  The artist creates something that will resonate far beyond their initial idea/theme/skill, because something in the piece speaks to the personal experiences of another person in a way the artist can never plan for, or understand.  But the fact that sometimes my artwork does this to me in surprising ways, still confounds me.  It isn't necessarily big, grand artworks that do this for me.  In fact, more often that not it's the smaller, odd little ones.  The Talesingrs do.  Both the stories and the artworks, but perhaps the stories most.  Maybe I've just somehow convinced my subconscious that what started as a bit of fun (the invention of the 'anthropological' material and my fictitious Professor Woodford-Harding) is all true.  But really, it was the other way around.  The stories felt to me as if they had come from somewhere else, they felt old.  They don't feel like mine, so I almost felt they deserved a historical context.  It's not an attempt to convince anyone they are 'real', and I hope no-one has thought they were and been disappointed.  But at the same time, they are real.  On some level I can't explain.

After a quick search on the web, it is clear there is a great deal of ongoing debate about the link between creativity and mental illness of various kinds.  It's an idea with tenacity, it has been around for a very long time, and it seems the jury is still out.  Some claim it's just an unhelpful stereotype that can do real damage.  Others are adamant it's true.  But I remember seeing a documentary a few years ago, and the brains of an artist with no symptoms of mental illness and a person suffering schizophrenia were scanned, and when the artist was in 'creative mode', their brains fired in the same way as the person with the mental illness.  The difference, I remember, was that they were not stuck in that mode.  They seemed to be able to turn it on and off.  In doing my quick skim on the web I found this article, and in it I found this particular quote, which jumped out at me.
"Specifically, Rothenberg's research concludes that translogical types of thinking characterize both psychotics and highly creatives. Translogical thinking, he explains, is a type of conceptualizing in which the thinking processes transcend the common modes of ordinary logical thinking. 
It involves what Rothenberg calls janusian and homospatial processes. Janusian thinking is a conscious process of combining paradoxical or antagonistic objects into a single entity. Homospatial process is the essence of good metaphor. It means to superimpose or bring together multiple, discrete objects."
And here, again, the same idea.
"Two aspects of thinking in particular are pronounced in both creative and hypomanic thought: fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought on the one hand, and the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new and original connections on the other"
Translogical thinking.  It's this idea that struck me, simply because it's news to me that this is unusual.  I presumed everyone did this, but maybe they don't?  The idea of thinking as a game, where you play with ideas, moving them around and putting odd combinations together just to see what you might get.

So what is happening?  Are we all mad?  I'm thinking back to another post I wrote ages ago, about the beauty of the unfinished piece, whether it be painting, poem, story or whatever.  That the unfinished piece holds a kind of magic that the finished piece doesn't, a dynamism and vitality because all the possibilities and potentials still exist.  And that is the exciting part for me as an artist.  Because while that piece stays unfinished, I can hold all those possibilities inside my mind, I can be in all those 'otherworlds' at once.  All those contradictions, and impossibilities can co-exist happily.  I can move around them, look at them from different points of view, try out different reactions to them.  I can thread two together that might seem utterly opposite, and find something beautiful or powerful in that conjunction.  And I think this is often the point where that something 'mystical' happens (if we want to put it like that), as if by putting together two disparate ideas we create a pathway that allows something else to come through, something that feels like it doesn't belong to us.  A secret whispered in our ears by a muse.  Who knows!  I once told a uni lecturer that I considered myself a 'post-modern humanist', and was told that was impossible because they are utterly contradictory schools of thought.  But it makes sense to me.  I can believe in faeries on one hand, and not believe in them at the same time.  And both are the truth.  I can look at an artwork I have created and see every painstaking line, every problem I had to resolve, remember seeing my hand create this and remember all the thought processes that have gone into it, and see it as nothing more than a thing I have made.  And at the same time I can be amazed and awed by what seems to be so much more than the fruits of my labour, a thing magical with a power of its own that is nothing to do with me.

This has probably gone on quite long enough, but it is a subject that I find endlessly fascinating, and enlightening to contemplate.  So this may just be 'Part 1.'   We'll see.  But for now, I'd better get both feet back into the real world, and bring my washing in!

Sometime later....!  Author Margo Lanagan's latest post, 'Truly, Madly, Deeply', just popped up in my blog reader.  I thought it worthwhile mentioning it here!
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