Blog Explanation

This blog brings together content that is noticeable, important or otherwise interesting from a human givens point of view.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The cost of coming in from the cold - by Pat Williams

"POETS", said Shelley - by which I take him to mean the great brotherhood of creative minds, (including great scientists) - "are the unacknowledged legislators of the future". They see further, and earlier, than the rest of us. And they create a cradle of words, colours, sounds, or even scientific formulae, to hold the unfamiliar subtleties they find. In Shakespeare's words, "As their imagination bodies forth / The form of things unknown, the poet's pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name". Such people can travel in the endless worlds of which the sirens sing, and bring back with them some of the 'airy nothings' they encounter. This poetic journey is, of course, one of the many meanings of the story of Odysseus and the Sirens, in Homer's Odyssey - a story repeated in many forms, and in every culture.
 From my own South African experience of the apartheid years, I have seen that without the work of 'poets' and their soaring imaginations, as well as the creativity and sheer sense of shared humanity that it triggers in others, a society is truly brutalised. But I have only now really understood and framed for myself the astonishing paradox that the sanity of any society depends on its madmen.By madmen I mean those whose vision soars beyond the box; for whom, in fact, there is no box, in whom normal everyday connections can dissolve on the instant and reveal something utterly different. Such people live on a knife edge - mad, but not mad. Their capacity is not given to all, and the price for it can be high - free spirits returning from the metaphorical sphere often make crash landings.
 A study by Kay Redfield Jamison of 47 living poets, writers and artists, for instance, all of whom had won major prizes or awards in their fields, found that 28 per cent had received treatment for affective disorder, and 29 per cent had taken antidepressants or lithium or been hospitalised - significantly more
than in the general population. Daniel Nettle, interviewed in this journal about his fine book Strong Imagination (OUP, 2001), from which this research is drawn, shows that the knife-edge actually arises within our genes. The delusions of the mentally ill and the creations of the artist spring from a common source. Indeed the underlying cognitive make-up of healthy individuals in creative professions has been shown to have an overlapping profile with schizophrenics. So it's a trade-off. The price for high art and creativity in the human species is often mental illness. Many readers of this journal, in fact, will have met unfortunate individuals who - whether artistically gifted or not - have strayed into the world of dreams and become lost there. Nettle argues persuasively that : humans have thought the function of  their 'poets' so valuable that they have been prepared to live with the mental misery it is often yoked to. Otherwise the gene may well have been bred out, there being no obvious adaptive reason for retaining it. It seems to me we are prepared to pay the price - about two per cent of the population in all cultures - because a proportion of this percentage will allow us,  sometimes, to fly high, on the wings of imagination and metaphor, rather than permanently suffocating on the ground.
Byron once said, "We of the craft. are all crazy" - but truly these 'mad-men' are in some respects saner than the rest of us. Without the great creative works of our ancestors, and even the tolerance of eccentricity, we would have far fewer beacons to sustain and inspire us, particularly in hellish times. Sir Geoffrey Jackson, for example, former British Ambassador in Guatemala, who was kidnapped and kept isolated in a hole in the ground for eight months, said that one of the strongest elements in keeping him sane and stable was all the poetry he learned as a child. Another example is that of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul official in Lithuania, who in 1940 signed more than 2,000 visas for Jews hoping to escape the Nazi invasion, despite his government's direct orders not to do so. Bound by the strict codes of Japanese society, and knowing that flouting them brought shame on his family, something even stronger impelled him - a well-known image lodged in his culture: ''Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge". A single sentence framed by an unknown 'madman' centuries before saved all those lives.

Many earlier societies were coherent enough for their populations to share in their dreams, myths, stories, proverbs and adages. But our own society is too fragmented now; too big, and too ill-educated. Many of my clients under 40 read no books, know no poetry, see or make no art. Getting and spending, seeking advantage, consuming in comfort, being celebrated for nothing much ... these often seem to be their highest aspirations. And of those who do read, many insist that reason and rationality are sovereign. They would take Goya's words, "the sleep of reason produces monsters", at their face value, unaware that, both metaphorically

and in reality, 'monsters' also guard the gateway to the unknown realms. It's as if we are living in a terrarium,
nothing too terrible, nothing too outstanding, a ceiling over our heads, and the arts themselves, those building
blocks of the imagination, largely scaled down to terrarium-size, Creative individuals tend to pour their talent into TV, films, advertising, blockbuster books and computer games, where the material rewards are great. And of course we are worried, because our children are addicted to them. But an addiction is often a conquered repulsion, or a concealed allergy caused by faulty nutrition. So when a child's natural hunger for
proper, time-tested stories - their real spaceships - has been diverted to the synthetic and second-best, what else could the result be? The majority of us, lacking the poets' double-edged gene and lucky enough to be called 'sane', huddle in our cosy terrarium, nibbling our art and- poetry-lite, and occasionally wondering if that is all there is. Yet all the while our madmen and giants 'and poets are out there in the cold, calling us, calling us ... and fewer and fewer people can hear them. We should all get out more.

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