The Spirit of Plato, by William Blake (1820)
How does one describe the phenomenal experience of creative inspiration? It is tangible until it isn't. It becomes indescribable the moment that it leaves you grasping at its tails. It moves through you like something wild and heavenly.
I read the Phaedrus for one of my philosophy courses. And quite typically when reading Socrates' explanation about the god-sent madnesses I tried to see if I could identify with each one. I wanted to be god-touched by mythical beings, yet I definitely could not claim that I was a seer or a prophet. However, as anyone knows having read Plato, an idea can become glued to the wires of one's mind. I felt the familiarity of the madnesses. I may not be a prophet but the madnesses didn’t feel like a distant reality that Socrates invented. For slowly but surely, I came to recognize how I had experienced two of the madnesses, all through the experience of creative inspiration, even though it was in the diluted form of being an amateur. It was the mild madness that came with me trying to be a writer. There was another madness I experienced, but this one came from me experiencing an artwork by an artist that was creatively inspired. This is the madness I think everyone has experienced in varying degrees. These madnesses of creative inspiration have been, for me, steadily growing in intensity as I grow older. Socrates says deliberately that not all madnesses are awful states of disturbance and I believe he could also have meant that not all madnesses are as long as a life. For creative inspiration is a madness of a moment. And have I not chased these madnesses for so many years?
In order to begin, I need to first map out a meaning. What is madness? How do we describe the state of mind that is pure otherness? We could find a number of definitions in the psychiatric diagnostic manual that I am sure could both do justice and show how complex the question of madness really is. What that route of inquiry would prove, which I am sure Socrates would agree with, is that there is a multiplicity of madness. But I shall not take this clinical path. Instead, I will map out the understanding of madness as not just the absence of accepted sanity but also as a presence of a different mode of being. Madness is a different mode of the mind.
Furthermore, madness cannot be a single mode of being that is "bad, pure and simple" for Socrates states:
…in fact the best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift from the gods (244a).
Because this is a possibility for madness it must mean that madness cannot be defined merely as an illness of the mind. Creative inspiration is not an illness despite certain portrayals. Madness is simply a mode of being that is beyond the boundaries of common being, the being of the center, the being that is understood and accepted. Madness instead transgresses certain limitations of being. And sometimes a transgression is divine. Obviously, this leaves us with the question of which mode of being, which form of mad transgression does creative inspiration belong to?
The first madness I will begin with is the madness as possession by the Muses. Socrates states explicitly that this madness is an essential part of creating art:
If anyone comes to the gates of poetry and expects to become an adequate poet by acquiring expert knowledge of the subject without the Muses' madness, he will fail and his self-controlled verses will be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds (245a).
To understand the madness of the Muses is to understand that it is a madness of form. One becomes possessed by the art form itself for one is possessed by the personified ideal of the art form. This is not a madness of content or subject matter. Instead, it is the madness of a pure love for the medium as a medium. It is the madness for words as a writer. It is the madness of being possessed by language. It is not about expert technical knowledge of an art form; it is whether one can embody it. It is not about careful self-control that tries to control the medium from outside it. Instead, the Muses allow for creative inspiration to be the madness that allows one to move within an art form, where one is out of one's mind and into the medium itself, a new mode of being. A writer is in language and the result is that language becomes electrified by a writer's fingertips. Creative inspiration is then a mad awakening to the possibility of form. The structure that holds the potential meaning of a piece of art is illuminated when the madness of the Muses strikes. It is an illumination that opens up the medium so the inner workings gleam. Creative inspiration when sent by the Muses is then a mad awakening to the mechanisms of form.
This is further amplified in the madness of the Muses being:
A Bacchic frenzy of songs and poetry that glorifies the achievements of the past and teaches them to future generations (245a).
The Muses give the madness of influence. Influence is what teaches form by animating the past glories of artistic creation. The madness is the connection between the past and the present, between past form and present form. Creative inspiration is being taught by the past to embody an artistic form more readily. A writer is closer to embodying the written form when experiencing those who have embodied it in the past. I am sure every writer has experienced that uncanny moment when after reading writers such as Virginia Woolf or Angela Carter, one's writing is slightly better even though one feels like a mimic too far away from brilliance. At that moment of creative inspiration, all the influence of the past crystalizes and becomes a way to awaken the possibility of form. The Muses show an artist what has been done so when the madness takes over and the form is embodied by the artist what will be done in the present is something divine, something that can trigger a Muses madness in another generation, so the madness can never end.
In terms of the second madness, I ask, is it not presumptuous to think that creative inspiration is the madness of the prophets and the seers? But what is a prophet and a seer if not a person with clarity of vision? It is a person who through morphing into a different mode of being can access a powerful reflective contemplation. We are then speaking of the artist not as a prophet of the future but a seer of the present, an artist prophesizes the truth of the present even when wondering about the truth of the future. Socrates speaks about how the ancients were not ashamed or scared of this madness. Instead, the ancients understood this madness as being part of a means of the finest experts themselves, a madness that belongs to those who can bring others into a new mode of seeing. Socrates tells us that the ancients weaved "insanity into prophecy" (244c). This is because one cannot inhabit the familiar when one desires to truly see. And an artist must truly see to create- for how else is an artist to bring a creation from the unknown within her? One has to lose the accepted mode of a mind to access this unknown otherness that is going to be formless but ready to be lovingly weaved together.
But how is this possible? Only through a special kind of loss of control. When Socrates speaks about the prophets, seers and priestesses who are out of their minds when they perform their "fine work", he says they would: “Accomplish little or nothing when they are in control of themselves” (244b). Creative inspiration is a special kind of loss of control in that it is not a lost mind in the sense of a mind unable to function. It is rather a loss of control of the mind in order to sharpen the mind. It is important for me to say that this is the madness of mastery. I know this because I haven't come close to achieving it yet. This madness is a controlled relinquishing of control. It is creative inspiration where the writer has mastered language so much so that it will not be detrimental to the form of her writing to lose control in order to shift into a mode of being that effortlessly guides her to new ways of seeing. Creative inspiration is then a new form of vision, a transgression of normal sight that can only come with the special loss of control of true mastery. The closer a writer is to mastery the closer a writer is to embodying the transcendent effects of this madness of creative inspiration.
The last madness is the madness that is embedded in a good piece of art if creative inspiration has gone right. But what does it mean for creative inspiration to go right? Creative inspiration in an artist fulfills its aim when the artist in embodying the form of a medium is able to articulate the new way of seeing that comes with the artist's madness. In essence, the mastery that comes from the Muses allowing the artist to move within an artistic form ensures that an artist can appropriately lose control and embrace a new vision that can then be integrated into the fabric of a work of art. Creative inspiration is the moment of madness that makes certain that form expresses a new vision, a new mode of being. An artwork created with true creative inspiration is an artwork that is embedded within the third madness. It is the madness that provides relief for ancient crimes.
What is the nature of our ancient crimes? We are implicated just by inheriting our own humanity. Our ancient crimes are simply what is woven in the tapestry of what it means to be human. If our ancient crimes come from being human, what part of our humanity is a crime? Is it the crime of our desires? Our natural urgings toward pleasure and violence? Is it our curiosity? Our victories? Our transgressions? Our ancient crime is simply that after all these centuries we still don't understand ourselves. We don't understand our desires, our victories, our violence, though every generation has given their attempted answers. Therefore we need the madness of art to provide a relief from the hardships of our self-misunderstandings. It is a madness that, as Socrates says, "turns up among those who need a way out," of what I think is confusion (244e). It is important to note that the artist doesn't give the truth handed on a silver platter. The artist is still plagued by the misunderstandings of ancient crimes, the misunderstandings inherited and exemplified by the artist's own humanity. This means it is crucial to remember that creative inspiration is divine. It is a little more than human.
So, how do we find a way out of our ancient crimes? It seems that the only possible way is through a representation of our humanity that is held within a work of art. A representation that can hopefully guide the reader of such a work of art to see the ancient crime, to see the misunderstanding. To understand that they don't know what it means to be human. For is it not a further crime that we have these misunderstandings but pretend that we do not? Creating art was "discovering the mystic rites and purifications" needed for relief from our self-misunderstandings (244e). Art is a mystic rite in its capacity to elevate our humanity by making our humanity beautiful. The beauty of the form of art makes us want to see anew as we are drawn to beauty naturally. Art purifies us through the act of catharsis. We think, we deeply feel, we are overcome and through this process, we are purified of the ignorance of our own self-misunderstandings. We are purified in that we have the clarity to see our ancient crimes. A new mode of being, a new mode of vision has the potential to open up to us through art's ability to make us pure.
There is something that I haven't been able to truly capture about the madnesses of creative inspiration. I have defined them, I have knitted together their characteristics and charms. But I have not spilled the secret of their intricacies. I know I am not a master at madness just yet to be able to fully express the phenomenon of creative experience. However, there is also still something intangible in the divine rush of creating a work of art, of bringing something from the unknown and finding a way of expression to suddenly be within you. It would take another piece of writing just to create a silhouette of the emotions that come with these madnesses. I am just praying to the Muses and the Gods for the capacity to create with creative inspiration. For what is magnificent is that when a piece of art is made by the divine sanction of mad creative inspiration, the madness can be passed onto the reader. This is how I first experienced madness. This is how I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to create this feeling of madness for someone else. For with the third madness, we find that art shares its divinity between human artist and human reader. Art on either end of its being —creation and witnessing— will give one the madness of the Gods. Art is itself a madness. And it is a madness that is, for me, growing in intensity as I chase it, day after day.