Society works to make us believe that we’re small, insufficient, that we have to run on the fumes of worldly ambition, that we’ll be doomed if we don’t buy what it sells and strive for its peer approval and prizes. On the other hand, countless religious texts, artworks, books of psychology and philosophy throughout the centuries have tried to tell us what a crushing load of crap that is. Yet despite the fact that in books, in films, in history, we see the story of our deeper and grander struggle, and even though we smile or applaud like mad when the movie hero or heroine triumphs, we fail to see ourselves — I mean, really see ourselves — in those dramas.
Don’t we realize what’s being shown about us when Luke struggles to believe that he’s strong with the Force, or when Neo flinches from the notion that he’s really The One and not just some corporate cog named “Mr. Anderson”? (And it isn’t so much a matter of “believing in yourself” as it is of believing what is in you and what you are in — what your self truly is.) Most of us never escape that cage of socialization and skepticism. We’ll nod our heads as we watch Julius Caesar or read the Gospels, yet we’ll still refuse to heed our spouse’s intuitions or the warnings in our dreams: We’re like Julius Caesar, continuing on his way to the Capitol despite Calpurnia’s alarming dream. We’re like Pontius Pilate, ordering the strange Galilean to be scourged and crucified despite Mrs. Pilate’s warning not to harm “that just man” because she had “suffered many thing in a dream because of him.” We’re too worldly, too sophisticated, too afraid of embarrassment to turn aside just because a still small voice speaks to us out of the shadows.
For some of us, it might be valuable enough that certain photographs can help induce a state that leads us to write an inspired line of poetry. But that’s not the end of the matter, not the limit of what is tapped when we can summon the genie from the invisible spaces inside the bottle. Many of the most important successes that I’ve had in legal practice weren’t born from deductive analysis or legal research. While I could explain why a strategy might work, or, afterwards, why I thought it had worked so well, the plan had simply come to me — while shaving or driving or thinking about something else — just as a line of poetry might.
Most of us have heard the stories from science and technology, too, about great discoveries that came through one of those sudden flashes from Who-Knows-Where. The ground that proves fertile may have been watered with study and training, but the plant works its way up, unseen, in darkness. We’ve all had moments of inspiration, and if you’ve paid attention to them, you know that they come to you as much as from you.
Not from just reading, but from my own experience, I know that the state that I keep describing, the state that certain photographs can help to induce, is brother or sister to states arrived at in other ways as well: by Zen meditation, by Tai Chi practice, by intense surrender to certain works of music, by sustained contemplation of the forest or the sea. Such states are sought and used in order to help Japanese businessmen solve corporate puzzles, to help hospital patients to endure their pain, to help wu shu practitioners break piles of bricks without injury to the hand or head that delivers the blow.
But the danger of this kind of “practical” testimony — about things that you might become able to do — is that it can become a kind of spiritual materialism. As Zen masters sometimes say, the meditative state is the goal in itself. That state of deep calm and tender alertness and rich satisfaction is both a door and a corner of the great hall into which it leads. It’s a part of the antidote for war and cruelty and greed. To the extent that we can find joy in the sound of wind through the woods or breath through a bamboo flute, or glory in a green pepper edged with light, we won’t feel impelled to murder others in order to multiply wealth that we already have, or to beat up strangers or foreign countries in order to prove that we’re “real men.”
One of my favorite photographs is a Bill Brandt portrait of the writer Robert Graves, seemingly caught in the state that I’ve described, disturbed in the act of artistic creation. The image rivets me. I recognize what’s happening inside it. Look at those eyes. They’re pointed at the camera, but they’re still staring elsewhere, wide with seeing or searching for marvels.
Shadows or darkness, fog or cloud, curving shapes, blurred or fantastical objects. Why should photographs with elements like these help to bring on that state of deep calm and heightened sensitivity that makes the Muse more inclined to visit?
I think it’s partly because they mirror conditions and circumstances outside the artwork that bring us to the border of our deliberating, daylight minds: walking through the streets at night or through woods in deep shadow, letting our sight and hearing absorb whatever comes in our solitary quiet; or lying drowsy in our darkened bedroom, drifting into daydreams or sleep. Art is one way that we can see what lies beyond the flashlight’s beam, reach into that invisible or half-visible place where so much is born and so much is decided.
Research has shown that people who make an effort to remember their dreams right after waking, especially if they try to write them down, will remember their dreams more often, and will remember more of what happened in them. But we don’t need scientists to prove to us that doing a thing repeatedly makes us able to do it more readily or easily; that muscles and memory — and, I believe, intuition and imagination — grow stronger the more they’re used.
I believe that this is also true for repeatedly visiting, experiencing, giving yourself to the kinds of art that carry us into those mysteries of the unconscious or whatever we might better call it. In Norse mythology, the king of the gods, Odin, who had the gifts of vision and poetry, rode a magic eight-legged horse. That steed, Sleipnir, could carry him across the borders between the various realms, of gods and frost giants and fire demons and the dead. As with anything else, the more we ride that border-crossing horse, the better we ride it, and the more swiftly and farther it’s likely to take us.
And why do I care so much, why should you care about riding across those borders? Because that place across the shadowy bridge is where we can discover our greater selves, our greater lives. After all, what do we think those gifts and treasures in the folk tales are all about? Over there, in the forest of intuition, in the scenes of paintings, in our dreams, is the place where the mythical creatures live and act out our battles with each other and with monsters and tyrants. If we see the vampire or the Cyclops clearly “over there,” we may recognize them in our “daily life” (we’ve all met them) and may be more likely to escape the temptations and dangers that they bring. In that place (though, of course, it isn’t exactly a place) is the soil in which our most powerful fears and desires, our most glorious insights and revelations are rooted. It’s the universe, the universe that stretches out from where we stand, from the little place of our planning and striving.
(If you click on the image below, you may even be able to see the plane’s noselight a little.)
At the end of my last post, I promised you testimony to a particular power of art. The photo of mine above has a title relevant to my purpose: “The Power That Builds in Solitude.” Though I’ll talk about writing poetry, what I want to show you is the creative power that certain photographs can help to bring us, in writing poems, and, I believe, in other parts of our lives.
Good poets know that inspiration has to be courted patiently, has to come to the conscious mind from beyond it. So poets have developed strategies for diverting the willful mind, in the hope that it will open more readily to the gifts of the poetic genie, or, as we call her, the Muse.
One of the challenges in writing good poetry, and the need for methods to meet that challenge, comes from the fact that parts of our conscious minds, especially our egos, work against us in creative endeavors. The suspicious watchdogs and fearful censors in our mental life try to keep things “under control,” walling out the pesky or potent spirits that live in the dark beyond conscious awareness. We dismiss the inexplicable; we want to ignore, to protect ourselves, from what we seem unable to comprehend or command. As a result, we need ways to distract the guards at the bridge, so that the contraband of the imagination can be smuggled across the border.
Gertrude Stein would park at a crowded Paris intersection when she wanted to write. The noise of traffic and passersby would drown out more chatty, deliberate thoughts. Hart Crane wrote by candlelight, drinking wine, listening to jazz. An early teacher of mine, the poet W.D. Snodgrass, said that he continued to write rhyming poems because the task of searching for rhymes tied up his more calculating mind, giving inspiration the chance to slip the unexpected under his door.
And I developed my own kind of ritual for letting in the moonlight.