On transmitting artistic and spiritual vision
Some years ago as I was searching for a way to introduce poetry to the high school writing and literature classes that I was then teaching — not just certain, selected poets and poems but the entire idea and import of poetry itself — I started telling my students that language can have an alchemical power. There is, I told them, a positively magical potency to language, particularly of the poetic sort, since language enables a person to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is especially true of lyric poetry, because this form is specifically meant to capture and express an author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of the poem’s formal content but an actual shared feeling with the author. When this magic works, it actually recreates the poet’s inner state in the reader (or hearer), so that poet and reader vibrate in sympathy, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual mental-emotional experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. The poet, sometimes speaking across centuries or millennia, acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else. And this same phenomenon is active to some degree not just in poetry but in all uses of language.
That, in combination with the reading of several short poems to serve as examples, was how I went about trying to “prime” American teens to understand the nature and significance of poetry. It has often been said that a person teaches best what he or she most wants and needs to know, and in this case that little homily was definitely true, because the issue of language’s magical/alchemical potency was something that I was only then beginning to appropriate consciously after years of grasping it intuitively and even using it in my own writings. And it’s something that has only become of more pressing interest in the years since then.
When we consider the ability of language, particularly in its poetical or otherwise artistically deployed form, to alter, shape, shade, and create states of mind and affect, what we’re really considering is a convergence of art and — for lack of a better word to encompass a vibrantly varied set of studies, experiences, practices, and disciplines — spirituality. We’re also highlighting a key distinction in the way language can affect us in both arenas. This distinction is between the transmission of visions, plural, and the transmission of vision. By the former I mean thoughts, concepts, stories, images — all of the actual content that can be communicated by language. By the latter I refer to the much deeper impact that language can have by working a change not just on what we think or “see” with our mind’s eye but on how we think and see. In art and spirituality, the most profound effects come from the alteration of a person’s basic outlook and worldview, his or her fundamental cognitive, emotional, and perceptual “stance” toward self and world. This is the level at which visions become vision, and an entirely new way not just of seeing but of being opens out from one’s first-personhood.
The nature of this type of transformation or awakening itself, apart from but related to its intimacy with language, has been articulated in various ways by — for example — various religious and spiritual visionaries throughout history. Not all transmissions of vision are of the pointedly religious sort, but reflecting on the pointedly religious sort can be helpful in clarifying the experience and reality in question. The Jesus of John’s gospel, for example, refers to a change on this level when he speaks of the necessity of being “reborn from above,” and the Jesus of the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) speaks of the same thing when he emphasizes the necessity of metanoia (traditionally translated into English as the unfortunate — because it’s loaded with inaccurate moralistic connotations — word “repentance”), referring to a deep inward turning and awakening and rethinking/recasting of one’s fundamental assumptions about everything in light of the shattering revelation and recognition that “the kingdom of heaven is right here within you and among you.” In Zen Buddhism the same phenomenon is emphasized by a focus on the necessity of a real personal awakening or enlightenment that transcends language. Its nature is hinted at or gestured toward by Bodhidarma, who famously defined Zen as “A special transmission outside the scriptures; no dependence on words and letters; direct pointing to the mind of man; seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.” The relationship of this “special transmission” to language (“words and letters”) is indicated in both Zen and Christianity by the fact that the scriptures, although they may not be sufficient in themselves to precipitate enlightenment, metanoia, or divine rebirth, speak with a special potency to those who are ready to hear them, and shine from the inside with a newly illuminated meaning after the transmission of vision has been received.
“In art and spirituality, the most profound effects come from the alteration of a person’s basic outlook and worldview. This is the level at which visions become vision, and an entirely new way of being opens out from one’s first-personhood.”
On the artistic side of things, one can similarly find all kinds of interesting expressions and recognitions of this truth in action. Tolstoy, for instance, in his classic essay “What Is Art?” directed his awesome intellect and sensibility at the question of how to define art and recognize it when we see it. He concluded that when “the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.” This very quality of “infectiousness” is, he said, art’s defining characteristic, so that “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” In a similar vein, but more oriented toward the issue of vision as such, S. T. Joshi has argued — controversially but, in my view, compellingly and deliciously — that weird supernatural horror fiction is a fundamentally philosophical form of writing whose ultimate success (or failure) hinges on the author’s effectiveness at communicating — or, as I would say, transmitting — his or her worldview to the reader, so that the reader’s actual worldview and sensibility toward life, the universe, and everything are temporarily or even permanently informed and altered by the author’s.
As I said, this is a subject of great fascination, and the effusion of words about it that you’re now reading was occasioned by two items that crossed my radar a few days ago, and that speak respectively to each of its emphases, the artistic and the spiritual.
One of these is a review of a new biography of Guy de Maupassant in The Times Literary Supplement. De Maupassant has long figured in my personal literary pantheon because of his short story “The Horla,” whose place in the canon of classic horror literature was established for English-speaking readers by the decision of Phyllis Fraser and Herbert Wise to include it in their seminal, as in genre-defining, 1944 anthology Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Its enduring position in my personal list of significant texts was established when I read it and realized from its first-person descriptions of the narrator’s assaults by an invisible demonic presence that Maupassant obviously suffered from sleep paralysis and used this story as a channel for his personal horror, which I share.
(And speaking of sleep paralysis, horror fiction, and spirituality, please take a moment to note the image on the book cover above. It is, of course, from one of Henri Fuseli’s iterations of his famous Nightmare painting, which during its two-century-plus lifespan has become both the master image of the supernatural horror genre and the master image of the burgeoning field of sleep paralysis studies in both its scientific and paranormal aspects. But even more than that, the painting and its embedded concept actually inspired the writing of some of the most iconic horror fiction in history. Look for more about these intertwined issues in a future installment of Liminalities.)
The TLS essay, which makes for very fine reading in its entirety, features a passage that speaks directly to the issue of language and literature and their artistic use as a way of transmitting vision:
Maupassant frequently acknowledged the influence of his master, as in his well-known essay, “The Novel”, published as a preface to the novel Pierre et Jean. Here he cites Flaubert’s advice on the need for a singularity of vision, concisely expressed through style: “make me see, by means of a single word, wherein one cab-horse does not resemble the fifty others ahead of it or behind it”. This concern for originality underlies Maupassant’s discussion of the novel. Often associated with realism, naturalism or psychological innovations which would anticipate Proust and Modernism, in “The Novel” Maupassant distances himself from recognizable movements. He insists on the primacy of the artist’s necessarily subjective vision, arguing that the relativity of perspective makes “reality” and “illusion” one and the same thing. In the essay’s most celebrated statement, Maupassant concludes that “gifted Realists should really be called Illusionists”. Instead of absolute truth, writers should instead aim to communicate to the reader the intensity of their unique interpretation of reality: they should offer not so much a “banal photograph of life” as “a vision that is at once more complete, more startling and more convincing than reality itself”.
— Kate Rees, “Maupassant day to day,” The Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 2012
This would have struck a deep chord anyway, but its effect was amplified by the fact that I encountered it shortly after similarly stumbling across a blog post by Charles Tart, whose incisive and inspiring writings on consciousness and transpersonal spirituality have been a joy for years. In this particular post, Tart discusses Sri Aurobindo’s identification of three different and progressively more effective levels of teaching: teaching by instruction, teaching by example, and teaching by presence or influence. He describes the first as “the straightforward passing of information from teacher to student, probably resulting in a lot of notes that we then think about and memorize the key parts of.” The second, teaching by example, comes from teachers “who seem to live the material they pass on to us, with care and passion.” Tart says we have probably all encountered the first two types of teachers, but relatively few of us have encountered the last.
He goes on to describe his own first experience with someone who taught by presence/influence, and his account of it makes for an evocative teaching in its own right:
My first experience of such an encounter was some years ago when I heard a lecture on meditation by Shinzen Young. This was at a technical and scientific conference, where intellect was all you needed to understand the papers and present your own paper. I had tried various kinds of meditation by then, and decided that whatever special kind of talent was needed to be a meditator, I didn’t have it. So I was seldom trying to do any meditation myself, but I went to the lecture, as I was still intellectually curious about meditation.
A few minutes into Shinzen’s lecture, I found myself very alert and thrilled. The closest I can come to describing it is that old phrase, “the hair on the back of my neck stood up.” I don’t think it literally did that, but some part of me recognized that Shinzen was speaking from direct personal experience of deep levels of meditation, not just from intellect, not just from book learning. By contrast, I realized that I had heard a number of famous Eastern teachers of meditation, and while their lectures were wonderful and inspiring , I’d had no idea whether they were actually speaking from direct experience or had simply inherited a way of talking about meditation that was polished and perfected by various teachers over hundreds or thousands of years.
Since then I’ve been fortunate to take part in a number of Shinzen’s retreats, and and while I’m “used to him,” I still get a little thrill sometimes when I feel he’s speaking from direct meditative experience.
— Charles T. Tart, “Meditation, Mindfulness in Life, and My 2012 Online Workshop,” July 23, 2012
As I think about these matters, I find myself mentally sorting through my own most cherished writers and teachers, and evaluating them in terms of the very issue at hand. And I find that, yes, the ones who have been the most meaningful to me, the ones who have gone beyond mere interestingness or entertainment to profoundly move, alter, and influence me, have possessed precisely this quality. They have been transmitters of vision.
Two examples before closing:
In “The Consolations of Horror,” Thomas Ligotti considers the question of why people read and write horror fiction, and why it is that horror, “at least in its artistic representations, can be a comfort.” After considering and rejecting several alternative answers, he finally concludes that artistic horror offers only a single valid consolation: “simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate.” In other words, horror art “consoles” because it acts as a bridge between the deep personal experiences of individuals who find their otherwise walled-off sense of individuality resonates with transmissions from someone who obviously shares the same experiences. Significantly, Tom is himself a man charged by a distinctive vision, albeit a metaphysically and ontologically horrifying one, and, as I have argued elsewhere, it is the deep connection between his literary output and this deeply held vision that accounts for the virtually preternatural power of his writing, which, as his many passionate readers will attest, transmits an enormous and dazzling charge — aesthetically, philosophically, spiritually — and acts as a kind of spiritual catalyst for those who are ready to receive it. As Christine Morris, writing in Dagon 22/23, accurately observed, “Receptive reader, be forewarned — if you read for more than escapist entertainment, if you read to be challenged or enlightened, if you read to explore not only daydreams but nightmares, Thomas Ligotti’s stories may transform you, too.”
In A New Earth, bestselling spiritual author/teacher/philosopher Eckhart Tolle emphasizes that “This book’s main purpose is not to add new information or beliefs to your mind or to try to convince you of anything, but to bring about a shift in consciousness … [This book] will change your state of consciousness or it will be meaningless.” Elsewhere he claims that because his books are written out of “stillness,” they have the power to bring readers themselves into that same state. Regardless of what you think of such a claim — and it has naturally drawn controversy, since he advances it in a philosophically secularized Western mass media context, where such ideas are received with disdain by the intelligentsia — one of the most common reasons given by Tolle’s many readers when they’re asked why they love his work is that his books convey an amazing sense of lucidity and power, and seem to speak on a level beyond words in a way that fulfills the claim he so casually but pointedly makes.
I can personally attest to the potency of both Tolle’s and Ligotti’s work, and also to the work of a small nexus of similarly transformative writers. And I’m convinced that a person’s responsiveness to this power or quality in both art and spiritual matters can only be enhanced by recognizing and attending to this issue of transmitted vision. It’s a phenomenon that requires the alignment of two necessary poles and participants: a “transmitter” who is truly up to the task by virtue of possessing not only an intensely held vision but the energy and technical facility to send it, and a “receiver” whose current state is ripe for the receiving. In truly attending to this issue, perhaps by making a discipline of monitoring our own deepest responses and noting the way a given author, teacher, or work of art affects us, we can find a way of accurately following a golden thread of inspiration and transformation.
Additionally, I think it should go without saying that the same awareness is also invaluable to all of us in our respective roles as writers, artists, and teachers. To achieve our highest ideals in these areas, we have to center ourselves in our own deepest visions and work to perfect our creative skills so that we can transmit these things to the individuals who are ready to receive them.
Posted on July 30, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged Books, charles tart, Eckhart Tolle, guy de maupassant, horror, language, Sleep Paralysis, teaching, Thomas Ligotti, transpersonal psychology, zen. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.