Letter to a Young Poet

“But perhaps you have hit upon the ideal of being a poet because you see a poet as an original, a perceptive and a pious man, pure in heart, with delicate sensibilities and an exalted emotional life, a man who is capable of awe, who yearns for an inspired, in some way ennobled existence. Perhaps you see the poet as the opposite pole to the money-man, to the man of power. Perhaps you strive for a poet’s career not on account of the verses or fame but because you feel that the poet only seems to enjoy a certain freedom and isolation but actually is responsible in the highest degree, and must dedicate himself totally if his poetic vocation is not to be a masquerade.

If this is so, then you are following the right road with your verses. But in that case too it is of no consequence whether in time you become a poet or not. For these high qualities, tasks, and goals which you ascribe to the poet, that loyalty to himself, that awe in the face of nature, that acceptance of unusual self-sacrifice, that responsibility which is never satisfied with itself and gladly pays the price of sleepless nights for a successful sentence, a well-turned phrase — all these virtues (if we may call them so) are the hallmarks not only of the true poet. They are the hallmarks of the true human being per se, of the unenslaved, unmechanized man, of the reverent and responsible human being, no matter what his profession.

Now if you have this ideal of a human being, if you are not inspired by a desire for notoriety and fame, money and power, but rather desire a life centered in itself and unshakable by worldly influences, then, to be sure, you are not yet a poet, but you are the poet’s brother, you belong to the same species. And then too there is profound meaning in the fact that you write poetry.

For writing poetry, especially when one is young, does not just have one social function, that of bringing pretty works of art into the world and through them delighting ot exhorting; rather, writing poetry can have, completely independent of the worth and possible success of the poems produced, an irreplaceable value for the poet himself. In earlier ages writing poetry was as a matter of course considered part of the development of a young man’s personality. To follow the way of the poet, not simply to practice the use of language but to learn to know oneself more profoundly and more accurately, ro advance one’s individual development farther and higher than the average of mankind succeeds in doing, through setting down unique and wholly personal psychic experiences, to see better one’s own powers and dangers, to define them better — that is what writing poetry means for the young poet, long before the question may be raised as to whether his poems perhaps have some value for the world at large.”

— Hermann Hesse, “Letter to a Young Poet”

Inner and outer purpose have not merged

“Many people who are going through the early stages of the awakening process are no longer certain what their outer purpose is. What drives the world no longer drives them. Seeing the madness of our civilization so clearly, they may feel somewhat alienated from the culture around them. Some feel that they inhabit a no­-man’s land between two worlds. They are no longer run by the ego, yet the arising awareness has not yet become fully integrated into their lives. Inner and outer purpose have not merged.”

— Eckhart Tolle

Beautiful ones

From Wikipedia, John B. Calhoun, “an American ethologist and behavioral researcher noted for his studies of population density and its effects on behavior”.

Mouse experiments
In the early 1960s, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) acquired property in a rural area outside Poolesville, Maryland. The facility that was built on this property housed several research projects, including those headed by Calhoun. It was here that his most famous experiment, the mouse universe, was created.

In July 1968, four pairs of mice were introduced into the habitat. The habitat was a 9-foot (2.7 m) square metal pen with 4.5-foot-high (1.4 m) sides. Each side had four groups of four vertical, wire mesh “tunnels.” The “tunnels” gave access to nesting boxes, food hoppers, and water dispensers. There was no shortage of food or water or nesting material. There were no predators. The only adversity was the limit on space.

Initially, the population grew rapidly, doubling every 55 days. The population reached 620 by day 315, after which the population growth dropped markedly, doubling only every 145 days. The last surviving birth was on day 600, bringing the total population to a mere 2200 mice, even though the experiment setup allowed for as many as 3840 mice in terms of nesting space. This period between day 315 and day 600 saw a breakdown in social structure and in normal social behavior. Among the aberrations in behavior were the following: expulsion of young before weaning was complete, wounding of young, increase in homosexual behavior, inability of dominant males to maintain the defense of their territory and females, aggressive behavior of females, passivity of non-dominant males with increased attacks on each other which were not defended against.

After day 600, the social breakdown continued and the population declined toward extinction. During this period females ceased to reproduce. Their male counterparts withdrew completely, never engaging in courtship or fighting and only engaging in tasks that were essential to their health. They ate, drank, slept, and groomed themselves – all solitary pursuits. Sleek, healthy coats and an absence of scars characterized these males. They were dubbed “the beautiful ones.” Breeding never resumed and behavior patterns were permanently changed.

The conclusions drawn from this experiment were that when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviors, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population.

Calhoun saw the fate of the population of mice as a metaphor for the potential fate of man. He characterized the social breakdown as a “second death,” with reference to the “second death” mentioned in the Biblical book of Revelation 2:11. His study has been cited by writers such as Bill Perkins as a warning of the dangers of living in an “increasingly crowded and impersonal world.”

The great man is the play-actor of his own ideals

A few quotes from an article I came across on Medium (https://medium.com/@dmoore629/climbing-the-ladder-of-selves-86ddaacf72bd)

“The philosopher Colin Wilson, in his book New Pathways of Psychology (1972), used the term ‘self-image’; the fact that we are only so much as capable of being what we imagine ourselves to be. “The great man is the play-actor of his own ideals,” said Nietzsche. Now, Wilson, significantly using mountaineering as a metaphor, comments:

“A man could not climb a vertical cliff without cutting hand-holds in the rock. Similarly, I cannot achieve a state of ‘intenser consciousness’ merely by wanting to . . . We tend to climb towards higher states of self-awareness by means of a series of self-images. We create a certain imaginary image of the sort of person we would like to be, and then try to live up to the image.”

This series of self-images, as it were, is precisely the means by which we can grapple with the tough and turbulent terrain of reality. However, it must correspond with a possible and latent — or implicit — reality within the psyche of the individual.”

[…]

“The […] feature of serious mountain climbers […] is inner discipline: a total control of reflexes; the style of a deliberate, lucid, and purposeful action; a boldness that is not reckless or hasty, but which is connected to the knowledge of one’s own limitations and strengths and of the exact terms of the problem to be solved. In relation to this characteristic, we also find yet another one: the control of one’s imagination and the capability to immediately neutralize any useless and harmful inner turmoil.”

[…]

“… the intellect is merely one of creation’s aspects. Therefore, it would be a leap further to understand the evolutionary drive in man, who appears to be the most complex creature on Earth with apparently surplus potentialities yet to be actualised or ‘drawn forth’. Colin Wilson, in The New Existentialism (1966), calls the two polar states of consciousness ‘inauthentic’ and ‘authentic’, that is — in Fuller’s terms — he compares the mind of an entropic universe with that of an anti-entropic one (and the latter of course is the world of human consciousness).

Wilson describes the fundamental differences thus:

Inauthenticity is to feel futile, contingent, without purpose. Authenticity is to be driven by a sense of purpose. Such a sense of purpose cannot exist unless we first make the assumption that our sense of contingency is a liar, and that there is a standard of values external to every day human consciousness.

At this point it is clear that an element of faith is necessary, and it quickly turns into the problem of religion. However, it would be fundamentally correct to say that pessimism, like any other state, is an act of intentionality, and that the ‘act of faith’, as Wilson points out, is just another way of “concentrating these powers of intentionality”

[…]

Colin Wilson is far too credulous of charlatans and pseudoscience, but he often has interesting things to say, although sometimes in a muddled (and inaccurate) fashion. When I read him I take whatever is useful to me and the rest with a handful of salt. Really, Colin, Uri Geller can contact "another form of energy that can be used for bending spoons"*? Sigh. I have no trouble believing that we know very little, and that there is more to our existence than what science has explained or can explain, but I also understand humans and human nature far better than Wilson, it seems. I think I admire his ability to believe, though. His facility with faith. Well, I’m envious of it. But his faith in other people, like Geller for just one example, makes me shake my head.

* From The Ladder of Selves, but pretty much anything I’ve ever read by him treats pseudoscience and everything paranormal as undisputed fact. The reference to Geller just happens to be on the page I am currently skimming past.

Anyway, the reason I was reading The Ladder of Selves was that I had randomly picked up the book and landed on that essay. Which, admittedly, was a great coincidence as I immediately read the following account, which I could have written myself after some recent experiences that have been very troubling. Emphases (bold text) in the quoted text below are mine. (edit: well, the bolding is not showing up in this WordPress theme within blockquotes.)

“Lying there […] I felt my energies churning, like a car being accelerated when the engine is in neutral. […] rising panic, accelerating heartbeat, the feeling of being trapped.

[…]

I had experienced something of the sort in my teens […]. One day at school, a group of us had been discussing where space ended, and I was suddenly shocked to realize that the question seemed unanswerable. It felt like a betrayal. It suddenly struck me that a child’s world is based on the feeling that “Everything is OK.” Crises arise, apparently threatening your existence; then they’re behind you, in the past, and you’ve survived. Or you wake up from a nightmare, and feel relieved to realize that the world is really a decent, stable sort of place. The universe looks baffling, but somebody, somewhere, knows all the answers…. Now it struck me that grown-ups are, in this respect, no better than children; they are surrounded by uncertainty and insecurity, but they go on living because that’s all there is to do.

For years after that insight, I had been oppressed by a sense of some terrible, fundamental bad news, deeper than any social or human problem. It would come back with a sudden shock when life seemed secure and pleasant — for example, on a warm summer afternoon when I saw a ewe feeding her lambs, looking a picture of motherly solicitude, unaware that both she and her lambs were destined for someone’s oven.

Now, as I sat in the armchair and tried to repress the panic, I realized that it was important not to start brooding on these fundamentals — our total ignorance, our lack of the smallest shred of certainty about who we are and why we are here. That way, I realized, lay insanity, a fall into a kind of mental Black Hole.”

The Outsider seeks a meaning and purpose that the everyday world cannot provide

“The Outsider is someone who sees “too deep and too much” and that most of what he sees is “chaos.” He or she lives in the world with a sense of “strangeness” and “unreality.” The safe, stable reality that most of us perceive is for the Outsider an illusion, a façade obscuring a more dangerous and threatening possibility: that of nothingness, nihilism, and the void, the complete inconsequentiality of human life and all its achievements. For the Outsider, the values and meanings that constitute life for most people — a good job, a big home, a nice bank account — are empty and makeshift; they are, at best, “attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational.” He stands for Reality. He seeks a meaning and purpose that the everyday world cannot provide and his salvation lies in understanding this and embracing it with total conviction.”
– Gary Lachman, Beyond the Robot (biography of Colin Wilson)

Proto Abstraction in Photography

Proto Abstraction
What I call ‘proto abstraction’ can, as the name implies, be considered a way-stage on the road to abstraction proper. It typically depicts recognizable objects, but framed or lit in such a way as to draw attention, when photographed, to the resulting image’s design properties. This is achieved by a combination of bold and simplified gestalts, unusual points of view, strong lighting, close ups and other crops that direct attention to visual patterning in the image. Given, however, that this still involves recognition of everyday objects, it clearly cannot count as abstract on the forgoing account. It is formalist, rather than abstract proper.

Proto abstraction was common among photographers attracted to abstraction in the other arts, but unable or unwilling to forgo the depiction of recognizable objects altogether for the sake of full blown photographic abstraction. Examples include Paul Strand’s Abstraction, Twin Lakes Connecticut (1916) and some of his early cityscapes, and Edward Weston’s 1936 series of Sand Dunes Oceano, all of which depend on an interplay of framing and strong, natural light. Other examples depend on dramatically ‘tipped up’ vertiginous points of view (Strand’s View from the Viaduct, New York (1916), László Moholy Nagy’s Berlin Radio Tower (1928) or André Kertész’s images of Washington Square in the snow (1954)).

The fact that photography proved slower than many other arts to embrace abstraction in its full-blown form may not be surprising, given how widespread the idea that photography is at bottom an art of documenting the world was and still is. Strand himself celebrated photography’s supposed ‘absolute, unqualified objectivity’, despite the fact that both his own work, and the terms in which he celebrated that of others, shows how misleading a characterization this is for the kind of distinctive personal vision he had in mind. Meanwhile leading theorists of modernism, both within and without photography, took an orthodox conception of photography more or less for granted—despite modernism’s inbuilt telos towards abstraction.

Faux Abstraction
Faux abstraction is a close cousin of proto abstraction and the two can be hard to distinguish in some cases. It consists chiefly of various strategies of estrangement and defamiliarization that isolate objects from their everyday environments or frame them in such a way as to delay or frustrate recognition of what one is looking at. What is especially interesting about faux abstraction in this context is that it depends, for its dramatic effect, on leveraging the orthodox assumptions of viewers. Photographs in this vein occasion such delight largely because it is widely assumed that photographs necessarily show us how some corner of the world looked at some moment of time. Set aside whether such assumptions are true; were they not in play, these works could not carry the charge that they do.

Jaromir Funke’s Abstract Fotos (1927–9) of complicated shadow patterns are one obvious example; Minor White’s land and seascapes employing points of view (such as Bullet Holes (Middle Canyon, Capitol Reef, Utah) (1961) and Stony Brook State Park, New York (1960)) that make it hard to be sure what one is looking at—though it is clear that one is looking at something—another. It is hard to overstate how widespread faux abstract and related tendencies are in photography. The act of cutting away the rest of the world with the image edge, fundamental to much (if not all) photography, often works to estrange and abstract simultaneously.

This overlap between proto and faux abstraction explains why it is not always clear how to characterize certain images. Take Moholy-Nagy’s Radio Tower Berlin: is this proto abstract in virtue of formal design or faux abstract in virtue of strange point of view—or both? If the latter, it falls in the space where two overlap. Note, however, that such overlap is not complete. One can estrange by photographing something at an angle or speed or from a distance that frustrates recognition of what one is looking at, without this entailing that the result appears abstract. Conversely, one can abstract, by foregrounding a composition’s formal design properties, without thereby estranging. So the two remain in principle distinct, even if some images do both.

– The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 58, Issue 4, October 2018, Pages 385–400, October 13, 2018
By Diarmuid Costello

Paul Politis black and white photography

Photos: Paul Politis

Urge to abstraction: order and regularity

The art historian, Wilhelm Worringer, wrote a dissertation in 1906, which became his famous Abstraction and Empathy. […] Worringer stated that modern aesthetics was based upon the behaviour of the contemplating subject. He wrote:

“Aesthetic enjoyment is objectified self-enjoyment. To enjoy aesthetically means to enjoy myself in a sensuous object diverse from myself, to empathise myself into it.”

But Worringer perceived that the concept of empathy was not applicable to long periods of art history, nor to every variety of art.

“Its Archimedian point is situated at one pole of human artistic feeling alone. It will only assume the shape of a comprehensive aesthetic system when it has united with the lines that lead from the opposite pole.

We regard as this counter-pole an aesthetics which proceeds not from man’s urge to empathy, but from his urge to abstraction. Just as the urge to empathy as a pre-assumption of aesthetic experience finds its gratification in the beauty of the organic, so the urge to abstraction finds its beauty in the life-denying inorganic, in the crystalline or, in general terms, in all abstract law and necessity.

Worringer regarded abstraction as originating from anxiety; an attempt by man to create order and regularity in the face of a world in which he felt himself to be at the mercy of unprecedented forces of Nature. The polarity is between trust inNature and fear of Nature. Worringer perceived that extreme empathy led to ‘losing oneself’ in the object – the danger already mentioned in connection with exaggerated extraversion. Geometric form, on the other hand, represented an abstract regularity not found in Nature. Worringer wrote of primitive man:

In the necessity and irrefragability of geometric abstraction he could find repose. It was seemingly purified of all dependence upon the things of the outer world, as well as from the contemplating subject himself. It was the only absolute form that could be conceived and attained by man.

Thus, abstraction is linked with detachment from the potentially dangerous object, with safety, and with a sense of personal integrity and power. This is also the kind of satisfaction which the scientist experiences with his encounters with Nature. A new hypothesis leading to a law which will predict events originates from perceived regularities, from the ability of the scientist to detach himself, his own subjective feelings, from whatever phenomenon he is studying, and, when proven, gives an enhanced power over Nature.

[…]

Abstraction, then, is connected with self-preservation; with the Adlerian, introverted need to establish distance from the object, independance and, where possible, control.

— Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self

Storr discusses the work of Howard Gardner. Through studying children’s drawings, Gardner classified children as either patterners or dramatists. Patterners, according to Gardner, “analyze the world very much in terms of the configurations they can discern, the patterns and regularities they encounter, and, in particular, the physical attributes of objects — their colors, size, shape, and the like.” Their formal qualities.

Storr writes:

“For (dramatists), one of life’s chief pleasures inheres in maintaining contact with others and celebrating the pageantry of interpersonal relations. Our patterners, on the other hand, seem almost to spurn the world of social relations, preferring to immerse (and perhaps lose) themselves in the world of (usually visual) patterns.”

I’m reminded of the following quote from Paul Klee:

“The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.”

What information consumes

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
– Herbert Simon

Isolation

“It is true that many creative people fail to make mature personal relationships, and some are extremely isolated. It is also true that, in some instances, trauma, in the shape of early separation or bereavement, has steered the potentially creative person toward developing aspects of his personality which can find fulfillment in comparative isolation. But this does not mean that solitary, creative pursuits are themselves pathological. Even those who have the happiest relationships with others need something other than those relationships to complete their fulfilment.”

— Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self