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.


Mo Crow said...

what a great post Christina, I used to worry about going too far over the edge of the dreaming and not being able to get back but Old Man Crow worked as a psychiatric nurse back in the 70's (before the Richmond report set everyone free and sold off all the beautiful old waterfront psych hospitals and began this dreadful cycle where most of the homeless people are too mind challenged to fill out the overly complicated forms for government assistance but that is a whole other story... grrr!!!) Anyway, he assures me that if I can tie my shoelaces and make breakfast then I'm not very mad or at least sane enough to function as a gardener in the "real" world. Have found that elastic sided boots work well on the days that shoelaces are too challenging & there's always the cafe down the road when I simply can't make breakfast, now, it's time to get back to the drawing board (it's 4am) & y'know even the straightest people we garden for have their little quirks and oddities, we are all fey wild contrary creatures underneath our veneers, even surgeons and high court judges! I love this "one wild and precious life" & thank you as always for sharing your well wrought words & helping to get the creative juices flowing even on this cold wintry morning!

Ms. said...

The mind creates whatever it requires (in it's own estimation) in order to survive it's conditions (the real world experienced by the real body)...and all spiritual masters teach that experienced reality is simply that-experience-the way each one navigates through the endless choices. I too have entered the dark waters of mind matters, swum to shores unknown, and returned 'home' to myself with the treasures gleaned. I think often of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat", and all the Oliver Sacks books and musings for that matter. It is amazing indeed how our neurons can lead us to connections we can not prove. That is, and always has been the realm of art's exploration, the territory of inspiration, imagination and wonder. When reason is not adequate explanation, we may invent the world we wish to inhabit, using all the tools at hand, and isn't that the miracle of every day existence after all! Craft is the plodding work that follows inspiration, and craft is a practiced habit.

Windsongs and Wordhoards said...

Both your posts here are fascinating, especially so as I am with a family full of writers, artists and musicians, not to mention a brother helplessly drifting through a life of schitzophrenia. His path is a little too difficult for me to dwell on, but I see all the threads of all you discuss certainly within myself and some of my creative kin.
I'm perhaps a little too tired tonight to respond very coherently on this... I do remember when I used to be deeply immersed in a long spell of writing, I would try to resurface for 'important' things that seemed meaningless, like eating, trying to converse with people or going to work. It would be like trying to blindly grope my way back through a fog to the real world, where in a daze I would barely be able to vocalise a sentance or recall who I was, all the while the dim insistant murmuring of the story's characters distracting me, drawing me back.
I've heard other writers say the same - my brother in law said he lived through his lead character all the while he was writing his novel, immersed in another's psyche, and I recall I felt much the same with my own characters.

I will leave you with the quotes I currently have on the first page of my sketchbook to remind me:

'It is not skill, knowledge, intellect,
good luck or bad,
but choosing to feel
the strange notes of our wildness,
for there is not nothingness
despite the easy magic of despair.'

- Terrance Keenan.


That just to have the eyes of an artist,
That can be enough,
The ear of a poet,
That can be enough,
The soul of a human
just pointed in the direction of the divine,
That can be more than enough.
I tell you this to remind myself,
Every gesture is an act of creation
Even empty spaces and silence
Can be the wings and voices of Angels.'

- Michele Linfante.

And finally:

'It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.'

- Seneca

Valerianna said...

Hmmm, my comment went away! Well, good post, I said a lot more, but....

A mermaid in the attic said...

It's always so good, so...validating?...to hear others say they understand because they feel the same way. And I think this immersion in another world is very much a part of it, and one that sometimes other people cannot understand. It also, I think, cycles throughout life, and at the moment (and I suspect Carrie you might feel the same) as a mother with young children I don't often get the chance to do that. I have to be in the 'real' world much more, and I do sometimes feel I'm just skimming that otherworld, dipping a toe in here and there when I really want to jump in and feel the utter beauty of DEPTH. I miss it. Even at university, having to do assignments to deadlines and the like, I could immerse myself in them, go deep and find that what looked rather boring or ordinary on the surface, was a rich seam of treasure deep down. I wonder whether that's part of the modern malady, we have such a smorgasbord on offer, that we never plumb the marvelous depths of anything and so remain detached and disengaged. Hmmm, food for another feast perhaps?

And Valerianna, I'd SO love to read your thoughts, please post again!

Windsongs and Wordhoards said...

Exactly that Christina, yes... and now I must stop skiving and get back to work (another frustrating distraction of the here and now!) :)

Wendy said...

Much to do lately, but I will come back and re-read this post when I can.

I'm in a kind of bother lately, feeling mentally "out of it" in regards to trying to keep up real life but simultaneously not mad-in-a-good-way in terms of creative work which lags and whose lag stresses me out...

I think I'm looking for the keys to the door but darn it, the keykeeper doesn't give a whit about my schedule or convenience or desire...

Ann said...

NIce post, thanks.

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