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Inspiration: A Means to an End?

In the contemporary context, inspiration or the phenomenon of being inspired has become linked with stories of artistic, literary or scientific breakthroughs that elicit awe and a sort of envious admiration from onlookers. An instance of being inspired usually precedes a creative act and inspiration, therefore, is never really seen as an occurrence in itself, or as something that is natural and inclusive. Rather, its general perception as the cause only of artistic creation leads to an ivory tower being built around it almost unintentionally, leads to it becoming hallowed and exclusive, flirting with or smiting (in whichever vesture you choose to view it) only those who possess the faculties to make something of it. They can be poets or artists, they can be prophets, they can be both (the group of fin de siècle French painters who titled themselves Les Nabis did so based on more than their collective, prophet-like beards; they sought to liberate painting from what they saw as its philistine confines). But does one have to be any or all of these in order to be inspired? Does being inspired have to result in perceivable actions? Or is inspiration simply a state of being, independent of expression?
Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his treatise, A Defence of Poetry, argues that ‘the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.’
Now, Shelley, on the one hand, has you believe that inspiration is a set of fleeting impressions that every mind is receptive to, or can play receptacle to, because we all inhabit the same corporeal world with the same network of senses running through us. ‘Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody,’ he writes, suggesting the free, unbridled, unpredictable nature of inspiration. In other words, so long as we are alive, we are in a continually inspired state. We need not be poets, artists or musicians to express it either. By simply being, as he puts it, ‘an instrument’ for these impressions, we begin to live them. A rustic walk at sunrise, for instance, habitually performed by one who has no command over metre or rhyme, could be an act inspired by the beauty of the sun rising. There can be (and are) similar manifestations of inspired thinking on the streets, on pews, prayer-mats and bleachers, in battlefields, in bedrooms, where anything from patriotism to romantic love is the ‘invisible influence’, the ‘inconstant wind’ that moves these instruments to ‘ever-changing melody’.
He also (and here he can be rallied with other examples) points to the inevitable lacuna that divides ‘original conceptions’ from their communication to the world, even when done through ‘the most glorious poetry’. Something, some evanescent flash of violet light, some maddeningly elusive echo or cadence, some fierceness of the original idea will be tamed and blunted, tarnished and weakened, in translation, in conveyance from thought to expression. The Surrealists sought to bridge the gap between primal, oneiric inspiration and its expression by engaging in automatic drawing and writing (thereby also negating rules and prerequisites of traditional drawing and writing, and making the act of expression exoteric even as it seemed most occluded by the mystery of the unconscious).
Yet, like some of his contemporaries, Shelley also propounded that a poet was chosen as a vessel for ‘unapprehended inspiration’. What is debatable is whether it is inspiration or the ability to use it to create that makes one a poet or an artist. Because if ‘inspiration is already on the decline’ when ‘composition begins’, it would be safe to say that a degree of study, calculation, or overall Apollonian approach is required to capture even a vestige of inspired thinking. John Keats famously wrote in a letter to John Taylor, dated February 27th, 1818, ‘…if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ And Robert Graves, in The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, writes, ‘ “Poets are born, not made.” The deduction that one is expected to draw from this is that the nature of poetry is too mysterious to bear examination: is, indeed, a greater mystery even than royalty, since kings can be made as well as born and the quoted utterances of a dead king carry little weight either in the pulpit or the public bar.’ If poets and artists cannot be made, if preparation is the knell of pure inspiration, as this argument sets out to prove, what is it, then, that sets them apart from every other man or woman who may, if not often then at some point in their lives, be as inspired as them?
More light is shed on this dichotomy in Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, in the form of a polarisation of mind and nature (or instinct). Goldmund is the epitome of an inspired man. His inspiration takes him on a quest through a vast medieval landscape. On a superficial level, he can be seen as inspired by physical, feminine beauty, which results in his becoming a great lover; on a deeper, psychological level, it is the idea or unformed image or archetype of the Mother that inspires or spurs him to exploration. His dilemma is that he knows exactly how he wants to represent her, but lacks the technical prowess to do so. Does this make him any less inspired? In a beautiful dialogue with Master Niklaus, a carver and sculptor whose effigy of Mary strikes him profoundly, Goldmund expresses his desire to learn to sculpt, so that he, too, can realise the image in his mind, admitting that though he has no drawings to show, ‘it has struck (him) how a certain shape, a certain line recurs in a person’s structure, how a forehead corresponds to the knee, a shoulder to the hip, and how, deep down, it corresponds to the nature and temperament of the person who possesses that knee, that shoulder, that forehead, and fuses with it.’
The observation shows how Goldmund, unable to sculpt, carve or create, still possesses what can only be referred to as an inspired vision. And mindful of the seemingly unconquerable gap between an image and its realisation, he also observes the discrepancy between the master’s head and hands while he works, years of practice constantly shepherding his actions and instinct pulling and steering his hands with a will of its own. ‘At least this was what Goldmund read from the master’s head: great patience, years of study and thinking, great modesty, and an awareness of the dubious value of all human undertaking…The language of his hands was something else again; there was a contradiction between the hands and the head. These hands reached with firm but extremely sensitive fingers into the clay they were moulding. They treated the clay like a lover’s hands treat the willing mistress: lovingly, with tenderly swaying emotion, greedy but without distinguishing between taking and giving, filled with desire but also with piety, masterful and sure as though from the depth of ancient experience.’
This ‘depth of ancient experience’ can be taken also to reinforce the Jungian belief that inspiration stems from racial memory. Goldmund’s inspiration in Narcissus and Goldmund is the archetypal figure of the Mother. Blocked by him initially in an attempt to alleviate the pain caused by the absence of his own mother, the inspiration, nonetheless, breaks through after Narcissus taps into it, and it enlarges, then, transforming into a quest for the primordial, ideal image of the Mother. Inspiration, again, becomes something placed outside the realm of conscious thought, autonomous from the effectiveness or even the possibility of its physical expression.
Another example of inspiration acting through the mysterious channel of the subconscious is recorded in a strange watercolour painting by Albrecht Durer. Appearing at a glance to be daubs of thin colour put absent-mindedly on paper, the painting is, in fact, a vision Durer had in a dream and which is thus explained by him in a note beneath the painting: ‘In the year 1525 between Wednesday and Thursday (7-8 June) after Whitsunday during the night I saw this appearance in my sleep, how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the earth about four miles away from me with a terrific force, with tremendous clamour and clash, drowning the whole land. I was so sore afraid that I awoke from it before the other waters fell. And the waters which had fallen were very abundant. Some of them fell further away, some nearer, and they came down from such a great height that they all seemed to fall with equal slowness. But when the first water, which hit the earth, was almost approaching, it fell with such swiftness, wind and roaring, that I was so frightened when I awoke that my whole body trembled and for a long while I could not come to myself. So when I arose in the morning I painted above here as I had seen it. God turn all things to the best.’
The archetypal motif of the apocalypse inspired an artist known for his complex, highly intricate engravings, detailed paintings, and discourses on perspective and mathematics, to produce an unusual and barren little image that is, nevertheless, rendered powerful because of the immediacy of its execution. Can it be compared to his contrastingly rich and highly planned series of woodcuts on the Apocalypse? And, if so, which is truly an inspired work and which an outcome of forethought and acquired skill? Both can be seen as equally inspired, with the artist simply exploring the idea to greater lengths in the woodcuts. And that is where the force of the inspiration comes into question. If it is such that a person becomes consumed by it, then it can fuel the Apollonian side of his personality, his skill sets, knowledge of and command over certain subjects, giving them life – because they need to have something to whittle and inspiration needs a skin, it needs a structure to be carried into the world of the living, the sensory world. It needs something that can make it a little more lasting, a little less ephemeral than a gesture, a leap, a bound, a general joie de vivre in someone’s makeup.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.

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