Wednesday 31 December 2008

Metaphor, the Inner Voice, and the Muse

In “Metaphor, the Inner Voice, and the Muse,” the final chapter of her 2004 book The Midnight Disease, Alice Flaherty discusses the experience of inspiration. Quoting T.S. Eliot and Octavio Paz, Flaherty argues that understanding inspiration involves recognizing not only the way we reach beyond the known but also the continuum of alienation we may experience in relation to our own inner voices (p. 240):
T. S. Eliot argued that "if the word 'inspiration' is to have any meaning, it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something which he does not wholly understand – or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him." Inspiration is a submission to "the voice of language," wrote the poet Octavio Paz, "the voice of no one and of all. Whatever name we give this voice – inspiration, the unconscious, chance, accident, revelation – it is always the voice of otherness."
The first idea is a relatively common one, that inspiration may involve reaching beyond the known to a point where one may no longer be able to adequately interpret one’s own words. Flaherty takes this idea further in an interesting way, however, using literary examples as well as clinical anecdotes from her own experience as a neurologist and as a patient to go from the idea of the muse as a personification of the unconscious to a fascinating exploration of the way in which the unfamiliarity of creative inspiration is not only “ego-alien” (she does an excellent job of translating the lingo of the various fields of research upon which she draws – and adds clever unobtrusive references at the book’s end) but in fact exists along a continuum of volition and agency, sometimes recognizable as our own strokes of insight, while at other times seeming distinctly to have arrived from some external source: the muse, the divine, the alien.

Returning to the book’s persistent theme of the role of the temporal lobe, Flaherty notes the parallels between an external seeming inner voice and out-of-body experiences induced by temporal lobe electrical stimulation. And she considers the role of the sensation of free will – or of compulsion – in the experience of creative inspiration. Acquiescing to the compulsion provides a certain satisfaction – especially when the compulsion provides an excuse, perhaps, to engage in a kind of creative exploration that might not fulfill social or personal expectations of propriety. Flaherty reports that “experiences of being forced by the muse to write, for instance, seem by most reports to be intensely pleasant, perhaps even because they are involuntary” (p. 248). On the other hand, the inner voice can be intensely unpleasant if it no longer seems like a voluntary narrative of experience, but rather seems disorganized, commanding, or unfamiliar, as in schizophrenic auditory hallucinations (which Flaherty notes may be drastically reduced by inhibiting subvocalization, pointing to the literal nature of the inner voice).

Hypothesizing about the role of dopamine in the neurochemistry of the inner voice, Flaherty does not suggest that a happy level of relationship with the muse might be attained. But by prompting us to better understand the “spectrum ranging from the normal inner voice to the completely ego-alien voices in auditory hallucinations and, perhaps, religious experience” (p. 240), she provides a framework that helps contextualize much of the phenomenology of struggle with the inchoate meaningfulness that suffuses the experience of creative production.

Alice Flaherty (2004). The midnight disease: The drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Comment by Keith Oatley
Thank you very much, Valentine, for this post on Alice Flaherty. She has taken ideas about inspiration much further than I had previously read or thought about: really interesting.
When I read up on the psychology of creativity the story was, and still is, that although the muse is an ancient notion, it was brought into modern psychology by the mathematician Poincaré who wrote about having a profound idea about a substantial problem he had been working on. He had been unable to solve the problem, but the solution come to him unbidden when he was on a journey, about to step onto a bus, and not thinking about the problem at all. His conclusion about his experience was that the solution to the problem involved trying out huge numbers of combinations, too intricate or boring for the conscious mind. These combinations were, he thought, tried out unconsciously until one worked, and his unconscious mind then let him know. The notion was formulated by Wallis (1926) into a psychological principle of creativity involving stages: preparation (consciously active work), incubation (when you don't think about the problem consciously), inspiration (the solution), and verification (to see if it works). But the idea of the really important stuff being done unconsciously, and the essential coming in a flash of inspiration, was pretty energetically demolished by people like Perkins (1981). It has been replaced by the principle of expertise in which one needs to spend 10,000 hours or so actively solving problems in the domain of interest. I was convinced by the argument and evidence, and following this, I have felt that the idea of inspiration was altogether too passive a concept.
Flaherty's idea, as you recount it, is fascinating because it comes at the issue from a completely different direction, and it is making me rethink things. I think the idea of fiction being about otherness and its understanding, along with this idea of Flaherty's that one can get in touch with otherness in oneself by writing are both tremendously interesting.

D. N. Perkins (1981). The mind's best work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Henri Poincaré (1908). Mathematical creation (translation by G.B. Halstead, of Le Raisonnement mathematique, in Science et methode, Paris: Flammarion). In B. Ghiselin (Ed.), The creative process. Berkeley: University of California Press (1952).

Graham Wallas (1926). The art of thought. London: Cape.

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