Tuesday 26 July 2022

Prufrock's Soul

A university friend said to me the other day that she felt writing academic papers was not nourishing in the same way as more artistic things that she did (but did less since she spent more time writing papers). I agree, and this makes me want to know more about differences between the qualia of different creative activities. What is nourished when the soul is nourished? What might be the mechanism?

Spiritual nourishment is visceral. There is a sensation, perhaps somewhere near the solar plexus, which is activated with certain activities which might be considered to be nourishing. Personally, my solar plexus rarely responds when I am writing. I know this because as I write this, I cannot feel it: the activity is in my head, not my belly. When I think more about the specific feeling of "soul nourishment" then I will rehearse those things which produce it - gazing at a beautiful sunset, beautiful moments in music, water - both still and a flowing stream, a cathedral or grand library.

There is something primeval about these experiences: something timeless. In the evolutionary theory of John Torday, as biological entities, we are phenotypes seeking information to return us to an original evolutionary state. Sometimes the seeking can go wrong and we simply end up lost. When T.S. Eliot writes in the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": 

"I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."

The ragged claws are the primal evolutionary state; Prufrock's weary, regretful, sexually repressed, empty-souled persona is the result of evolutionary accretions in search of a return to the simplicity of evolutionary origins which have only further obscured any deeper satisfaction. And Prufrock is lost. But the poem points to a kind of vector that connects primal origins to an empty life in search of meaning.

The point about this is that Eliot's soul was nourished in writing about a lost soul. The similarity to Dante is obvious. But what is it about Eliot's art which enables him to articulate this connection? 

Great poets, artists and composers harness energy. John Galsworthy commented about art and energy that: 

Art is that imaginative expression of human energy, which, through technical concretion of feeling and perception, tends to reconcile the individual with the universal, by exciting in him impersonal emotion. And the greatest Art is that which excites the greatest impersonal emotion in an hypothecated perfect human being.

(I'm grateful to Marie Ryberg for drawing my attention to Dewey's "Art as Experience" where he quotes this Galsworthy passage.) 

Eliot's poem does this. And the writing of academic papers does not have this effect. The question, it seems, is about energy. He understood the energy vector that connects his art and technique to a deeper truth about the universe, and the plight of J. Alfred Prufrock. 

Academic writing is rather deathly by comparison. The desire to explain away things which can't be explained, and conform to expectations of "proper referencing", "cogent arguments", "rigorous methods", etc, kills the soul. It might reward academics with promotion within an insane (and increasingly broken) system, but unless the work is truly ground-breaking, it amounts to little more than paraphrases of what has gone before. This is particularly true of education research.

When we do more deeply creative things, however, we engage with the energy that connects the scuttling claws with our present state. The regression connects us to where we come from, and where we are going. The are a number of hormonal and epigenetic factors which kick-in in the process. Moreover, the technique of creative work is very similar to what Galsworthy describes: a technical concretion of feeling and perception. The artist's challenge is to develop a technique whereby this can be managed. 

The deep challenge with this is that, of course, education does not see itself in relation to primal origins and energy vectors! It sees itself in relation to the development of independent "selves" as economic units in the making. But primal origins are what connect us to each other. What we imagine as our independent "self" is merely an apparatus for collecting epigenetic information and eventually transferring it to a new zygote, which will grow to some new apparatus for collecting information. 

Darwinian natural selection privileges the organism surviving in its environment, whereas the organism may merely be a vehicle for passing epigenetic information back to a zygote. It's ironic that Darwin's model probably had its origins in Darwin's schooling, while the establishment of the evolutionary model has reinforced an attitude to educational growth and development which has pushed creativity out in favour of STEM-related nonsense. 

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