Friday, August 26, 2011

Imagination and Disillusionment

I wonder if you've ever had the experience where in the midst of reading something it suddenly occurs to you, "I wish I had written that." I had that feeling for the first time recently when absorbed in Marion Milner's On Not Being Able To Paint, this in spite of the obvious impossibilities. The book was written more than 60 years ago. The author was a woman, a psychoanalyst of note. And on drawing or painting as an adult, my experience is nil. These distinctions mean everything, yet they mean nothing too.

My mind seems most at home with progressive thought from the first two thirds of the twentieth century. (I originally wrote "first half of the twentieth century but wanted to include Maslow, who remains a hero for me.) There are many current ideas that I find alien; I believe ultimately they are less hopeful. People process lots of information. They do that fast. They seemingly want their learning to accommodate their information processing. I want to slow everything down. I want to go for a stroll in a place where I haven't walked before and then get lost. There is value in the experience of finding your way back home. I prefer the humanism of an earlier time where the promise of betterment seemed palpable. I'm unclear whether that preference has always been in me, as a young man latent and waiting for a suitable opportunity to release, or if it first manifest only after I stopped doing economics research. I took no psychology courses in college. My adult reading on the topic has been driven first by the implicit recommendation of others - monkey see, money do, with me as monkey - and then later where reading something offered up its own suggestion of reading something else. Even the monkey can make its own path.

Regarding gender, I believe the male writing on these questions tends to be abstract, partly out of preference for a "scientific" approach, though mainly to shield himself not just from bringing his own foibles into the story but also from the emotional baggage that goes with doing that. Milner is very close to her subject and she writes with passion about her own emotions, particularly anger. I've been able to discuss fear on occasion in writing of my own and I believe fear should be discussed far more often as an integral aspect of learning, but I don't recall ever writing about anger and its relation to learning. Anger should be discussed too. The female is braver than the male on this topic.

Before considering art as a creative activity, I want to briefly turn to we others who experience those creations and the chain reaction that occurs as viewing the creations awakens memories and feelings in ourselves. Not that long ago, I wrote that I do not look for external imagery as a main source for my own thinking:

Mostly, the pictures that are important to me are in my head, images I can recall from time to time if not on command. Many of them are of my father; some are of friends. When I was in grad school I do recall going to the Art Institute and seeing a painting, I believe by Picasso before he embraced cubism, that was the face of Jesus, the most compassionate face I had ever seen. I've had some recent experiences with memory where it was clearly playing tricks on me because the thoughts were inconsistent. One then wonders if it is only a minor error or an entire fabrication. So I lack confidence in this memory, but I would like to see that picture again if it is exists. I'm interested in it for itself and it for my reaction. Mostly, though, I don't need or want things to look at to rekindle memories.

In this others seem to be different. I received the postcard from Barbara. Her prose on the other side was about the story Eveline. Barbara sees ideas through real photographs in a way I do not.

It did occur to me that Two Gallants was a painting drawn with words, just like a Toulouse-Lautrec. From a painter, we expect an interesting rendering of the image, but don't demand a moral to the story. Growing up, we had a painting or a print of a bum wearing a Fedora in our living room. I never asked why it was there, whether for compassion, or culture, or just an interesting face to look at.
This brings several thoughts all at once jumbled up. Can we make art without understanding how we react to the art of others? Was I entirely wrong about the moral to the story part of art? Much of Milner's book gives actual depictions of her paintings (in black and white only) where she then dissects the meaning in the picture and in the latter part of the book gives us the moral (the big picture, if you'll pardon the pun). Is there a fundamental difference between painting or doodling with a pencil, on the one hand, and writing, on the other? Or are they very much the same thing? If they are the same then I can say something about them both. I know something about writing and have experience with that.

Milner's core hypothesis is that there is an ongoing tension  between the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, the scientist in us and the artist in us, reality and imagination, common sense and madness. To develop the human we must focus on the whole, both sides of the dichotomy. A pleasing creation results when there is fusion. A rather flat and uninspiring product results from emphasis solely on the external.

Much education seems to so one sided. Milner's book is offered up as hope that education might change to fully integrate in the subjective side, Montessori for adults as part and parcel with instruction in the scientific method. Put a different way, the student should as much as possible learn about things by two different avenues, making something of his own and hearing about the received wisdom on the subject as produced and communicated by others. Then the two paths need to be joined. Much instruction, however, doesn't explicitly offer an opportunity for the student to create.

Why then don't learners demand two paths or provide the other path themselves and achieve the wholeness that way? Milner uses her experience as a painter to answer that question. She painted as a hobby, was actually quite good at it, yet especially early on she was not satisfied with her output. She was confused about the role of the artist and about inserting herself into her art, though that was the solution she eventually came to. It was a struggle getting there. Relying only on objectivity and common sense is safer, or so it first seemed to her. One must be oblivious to the danger or courageous to do make one's internal world prominent. We'll get to the risks with subjectivity in a bit.

I've written on the objective-subjective issue myself as a chapter in my book Guessing Games, called Just The Facts and Guessing. The emphasis was different, however, with a focus on decision making rather than on produced works. Like, Milner, I did take the scientist as metaphor for the objective side, but rather than use the artist to represent the subjective side I used the sports fan as model for subjectivity. Since we're apt to view the sports fan as boorish while we view the artist as exemplar of sensitivity, I asked myself whether what I was writing about was essentially the same as Milner's topic, or if it was completely different.

The similarities are far greater than the differences. The fan shares with the artist an intensity of feeling for the subject matter, a long term commitment to the goal, and an obviously personal point of view. Most fans aren't artists, to be sure. Yet their spirit can serve as the basis for camaraderie with like minded fans and after an especially thrilling contest can create the sensation of having witnessed something divine. My conclusion is that in important decision making one should not be entirely dispassionate and arms length with the subject. The leader needs to impose his point of view. It shouldn't be the entire basis of the decision, ignoring factual information to reach the conclusion. But it shouldn't be omitted either, lest the meal have bad flavor.

In Milner's use of language, the product of subjectivity is illusion. Creations are symbolic representations of those illusions. Children, of course, make illusion as an integral part of their play. We call it make believe. Why do so many adults seemingly dispense with make believe in their own lives? Milner's answer is that disillusion causes pain and anger. When the illusion contradicts common sense in such an obvious way that the person must own up to it, the person is damaged in a serious way. As a matter of self-protection, persons who have been so damaged try to avoid a repeat episode. This is a case, however, of the cure being worse than the disease. The fusion of the internal mind and the external world is what gives life meaning. If Maslow read Milner, he'd refer to this fusion as self-actualization.

Reading On Not Being Able To Paint I found my dreams more vivid and more pictorial, also easier to remember. One involved looking at an eye chart with different sized letters but rendered on wheels like a large odometer. Even the biggest letters were blurred and I was trying through squinting or some other means to see them clearly, but couldn't quite do that. That power in my dreams was temporary and has since subsided. The book also caused me to have a rather sharp memory of a particular Math Econ class in graduate school where we were working through Debreu' Theory of Value. Students presented all the material and one of my classmates was in the front of the room working through the proof of a rather difficult result - every subset of Euclidean m-space has a countable and dense subset. I knew the proof from a topology class I had taken as an undergraduate. I believe the argument was too hard for most of my classmates, including the student who presented the proof. He made a fundamental error. Rather than letting him continue I asked a question to illustrate that the point he was making couldn't be true. He blanched and couldn't continue A few seconds latter, seeing his reaction, I began to regret having done that. I felt I had destroyed his self-confidence. I had no right to do that.

In the appendix of the book Milner takes a more psychoanalytic approach to her painting and argues that disillusion is inevitable and we've all gone through it. The baby suckled by his mother makes the illusion that he and she are the entire universe. When the baby later sees the mother and father making love with the baby not in the picture the baby's illusion is broken and the baby has resentment because his world has been broken.

I've been a big fan of The West Wing and one of my favorite episodes is Noël, from the second season. Josh Lyman had been shot. While he recovered fully on a physical level, he had a lot of repressed anger that had no healthy form for release, his behavior erratic and anti-social as a consequence. Music, the cello playing of Yo-Yo Ma in particular, triggered an illusion of sirens, what Josh's subconscious retained in the aftermath of the shooting. Dr. Stanley Keyworth (Adam Arkin), a trauma specialist, is called in to help Josh. The session itself is poignant and shows Josh's vulnerable side. Near it's conclusion Josh sees how he has been masking reality. He asks Stanley if he needs more therapy sessions and if he will always conflate sirens for classical music. Stanley says no because, "we get better."

Disillusionment requires healing. Milner's book is a testament that we do get better, that our anger doesn't last forever, that we can make further illusions, and do so in a way that is extraordinarily satisfying to the creator. It seems to me that this is the lesson we must teach our students.

A collective reading of Milner's book might be just the ticket.

No comments: