“..all ye know on earth…”

Symbiosis: Institute for Comparative Studies in Science, Myth, Magic and Folklore

“…all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” : Truth and Beauty coming out of the anaesthetic?

By Gregg Heathcote

” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’
– that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
 

These famous lines by English Romantic poet John Keats typify the great tradition of thoughtful sense and expressive intuition which has long stressed the integral relationship of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Yet despite excellent evidence of the merit of such a holistic view, the central role of the aesthetic in human experience has been marginalised in much of the modern world, to markedly anaesthetic effect. This paper conjectures what difference it might make to the conduct of modern life, at both deeply individual and broad institutional levels, if the evidence of beauty’s true value is now being sufficiently heeded, and this process of disconnection reversed.

[NB This paper was prepared for presentation to the inaugural symposium of ‘Symbiosis : Institute for Comparative Studies in Science, Myth, Magic & Folklore’ at the University of Newcastle, Australia, on 27th March 2002. The stated aim of ‘Symbiosis’ is re-invigoration of links between the arts, sciences and humanities.]


” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote these germane words in conclusion to his Ode on a Grecian Urn. True knowledge being intrinsically informed by experience which is aesthetic in nature, and vice versa, is a pretty foreign idea to most people these days. The contrary notion instead generally holds sway that true knowledge derives from a rigorously objective perception of reality, as distinct from the fuzzy subjectivity of aesthetic projections. Beauty, deemed to reside in the eye of the beholder, in this dichotomous perspective really just gets in the way of clear vision.

Such a derogatory misconception of the functional integrity of a sensuously embodied mind is most unfortunate and damaging, especially in view of the ecological crisis it has helped create. In 1798, Keats’ fellow poet William Wordsworth wrote “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; Our meddling intellect Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:- We murder to dissect.” [1] The experienced realities we call ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ both concern our living connection with the intimate patterns of relationship all about us. However the clumsy vivisection which so grieved Wordsworth is the outcome of the stupid, anaesthetic application of intellect which, dismissive of an aesthetic interest in understanding, numbs experience while it is being eviscerated, with all the dangers that that entails.

Although the true significance of beauty may have been pushed aside by the mainstream within Western societies for quite some time now, this is not to say that it has always and everywhere been so. John Dewey, the tremendously influential American philosopher, in the early 1930s had the wisdom, well ahead of his time, to address the personal experience of the human body-mind in a holistic manner, asserting that “no experience of whatever sort is a unity unless it has esthetic quality”.[2] In keeping with this, the eminent Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has more recently stressed the point that historically “the aesthetic.. (is) not merely a dimension or aspect of culture, but its emotional-aspirational core, both its drive and its goal”.[3] Aesthetic capacity, like the capacity for language, has been a fundamental force in human evolution at all levels, universally valuable but highly variable in its expression.[4] Notwithstanding this variety, perceptions of the wholeness of truth and beauty are quite perennial. Consider the following examples:

– The origins of our words ‘music’ and ‘museum’ lie with the ‘muses’ of ancient Greek mythology. The nine muses were divine patrons of the human arts and sciences, and together they served to inspire all man-made beauty. All of the muses were daughters of ‘Mnemosyne’, the goddess ‘Memory’. Since the word for ‘truth’ in both classical and modern Greek is ‘aletheia’, which literally means ‘not forgetting’, the strong implication is that truth and beauty are of one flesh and blood, and an artist or scientist would do well to remember rather than dismember that fact.[5]

– The Buddha is reported to have said of enlightenment that “When one attains the release called the Beautiful, at such a time..(one) knows in truth what Beauty is.” [6]

– The Navajo of the American southwest have a highly sophisticated cosmology and system of spiritual cultivation with many intriguing parallels to those of Tibetan Buddhism.[7] Just as Buddhism focusses upon the realization of enlightenment, so the Navajo world-view focusses upon the reality of ‘hozho’, which is normally translated into English as ‘Beauty’ with a capital ‘B’. However the meaning of this crucial word ranges much more widely than that. As one anthropologist explains: “Hozho expresses the intellectual concept of order, the emotional state of happiness, the moral notion of good, the biological condition of health and well-being, and the aesthetic dimensions of balance, harmony, and beauty.” [8] Clearly, trying to talk in Navajo about substantial differences between truth and beauty would make no sense whatsoever.

But actually it is not necessary to travel far afield to find cogent evidence of the effective wholeness of the epistemic and the aesthetic. It is a poorly appreciated fact that, at its heart, the practice and productivity of modern science itself, supposedly the great bastion of objectivist reductionism, has been profoundly affected by the aesthetic sensibilities of a great many of its most capable and creative minds. Aesthetic considerations of symmetry, simplicity, elegance etc have time and again proven their relevance and value at every stage of the scientific process. It is for this reason that Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, could publish a book entitled ‘Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science’ in which he refers in precis to the validity of the old Latin aphorism ‘pulchritudo splendor veritatis’, [9] ie ‘beauty is the splendour of truth’, going on to quote the lines of Keats before concluding that; “It is, indeed, an incredible fact that what the human mind, at its deepest and most profound, perceives as beautiful finds its realization in external nature. What is intelligible is also beautiful.” [10]

Developments in neuroscience may help us start to comprehend the organic basis of this state of affairs. Doubtless influenced by wider cultural attitudes, neuroscience was until comparatively recently very much dominated by a compartmentalized and strongly hierarchical model of human intelligence. Under this paradigm it was postulated that the mind and body were distinct and separate entities; and that the so-called ‘higher’ mental functions, ie the cognitive and rational processes which it was held most distinguished us as humans, could be attributed to the tissues of the brain’s cerebral cortex. Beneath the cortex both anatomically and hierarchically, it was believed that the brain’s limbic system, known to be concerned with emotionality, was in evolutionary terms an older and more primitive structure which should naturally play a subordinate and minor role in the modulation of intelligence.

Ongoing research, however, has proven this not to be the case. The old paradigm has been discredited as it has emerged that there is indeed a strong body-mind connection; and that genuine intelligence is apparently more dependent upon the highly efficient, synergistic integration of functioning right across brain regions. What’s more, it is shaping up that the limbic system, or ’emotional brain’ as it is sometimes simply referred to, is in fact the core interchange for information being processed between body and brain tissues, and between the various brain regions. In addition to being itself influenced by other systems, the limbic system of a healthy brain plays a major, discerning role in the efficient modulation of the ‘higher functions’ of the cerebral cortex, continually sifting through information streaming from the cortical regions; determining the salience and affective value of that information; emotionally motivating any response which may be required; and then feeding the refined information back to the cortex, and to other concerned systems. [11]

The integrating and refining action of the limbic system therefore makes human intelligence possible. It makes experience of truth’s soundness possible in the same organic way that it makes ‘gut feelings’, intuitive insights, and revelational experiences of beauty possible. As the prescient philosopher John Dewey asserted, all experience has the potential for aesthetic unity and depth, which in neuroscientific terms is characterized by an optimizing integration of perceptive, affective and cognitive processes – the very same sort of optimizing integration upon which intelligent functioning as a whole depends.[12] This functional ideal is consistent with what is described in modern psychology as ‘optimal experience’, or the effortlessly absorbed ‘flow’ state of consciousness. Indeed the leading researcher in this field, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, acknowledges that “it may be that .. the aesthetic and the flow experiences are in reality indistinguishable from one another.” [13]

So where the great French mathematician Henri Poincare wrote that “intellectual beauty it is which makes intelligence sure and strong” [14], perhaps we should take him at his word. Perhaps we should fully appreciate that beauty makes and completes sense as an intrinsically rewarding, powerfully positive reinforcement of the synergies which form the foundations of intelligence; optimized in the deeply felt integrity of living experience; intimating that we are in sync and near the mark. We can borrow a suitably succinct term from traditional Chinese aesthetic discourse to describe the thoroughgoing conduciveness to truth and beauty we’re driving at. ‘Ch’i-yun’ was the first and foremost of the classical ‘Six Principles of Painting’, and is translatable as ‘resonance of the mind’. [15]

The activities of this ‘resonance of the mind’, and at other times its anaesthetic inactivity, may be further illustrated with respective reference to the mental phenomena of synaesthesia and dissociation. Synaesthesia is the conscious experiencing of a synthesis of ostensibly different sensuous, emotive and/or cognitive mental processes. Coloured hearing appears to be the most common form of synaesthesia, but an incredible array of combinations are reported. Moreover, if we accept the model proposed by Richard Cytowic, a prominent neurologist and longstanding synaesthesia researcher, we can understand these cases to be unusual, but perfectly natural, exposures to awareness of underlying synergistic processes, centred on the limbic system, which in the normal course of events are unconsciously active in everyone.[16] This would help explain why we find consistent patterns of synaesthetic expression in languages across the world.[17] The majority of us may take ‘loud colours’, ‘sweet sounds’, ‘sour looks’, ‘soft music’, ‘sharp flavours’, ‘bitter feelings’, ‘feeling blue’, ‘bright ideas’, or ‘ideas that stink’, to be just figures of speech, but for real synaesthetes they can be fetching stories in themselves literally and aesthetically resounding to the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Synaesthesia has, over time, attracted quite a measure of artistic and philosophical interest and enthusiasm. Scientific interest has however been patchy. The views of Robert Root-Bernstein, a physiologist and contemporary philosopher of science, are hence all the more noteworthy. Root-Bernstein does have a strongly stated interest in what he describes as the “internal resonances that amplify and purify perception.” [18] He argues that since “aesthetic sensibility underlies the most significant creative endeavors in science” [19]; and since aesthetic sensibility itself can be said to have a synaesthetic basis; then it makes good sense to advance a commensurate epistemological paradigm for the creative practice of science. This he calls ‘synscientia’, ie literally meaning ‘knowing in a synthetic way’, defined in his words as “being able to conceive of objects or ideas interchangeably or concurrently in visual, verbal, mathematical, kinesthetic, or musical ways.” [20] Full realization of such a paradigm would involve a symbiosis of the arts and sciences indeed!

As synaesthesia exemplifies the mental resonance of the aesthetic process, so dissociation exemplifies the mental disconnection entailed in the opposing anaesthetic process. Dissociation is the fragmentation and alienation of functional elements of the body-mind from one another. It constitutes a natural protective mechanism typically triggered, at least initially, in the interest of managing pain by isolating the impact of emotional trauma. For instance, the strange numbness and confusion which often accompanies the shock of a bereavement is dissociative in nature, allowing time for adjustment to an overwhelming new reality. More severe and/or chronic trauma can however lead to more profound and intractable dissociative maladjustments, with Dissociative Identity Disorder, the so-called ‘split personality syndrome’, being the most widely known of these.

Just as we abuse our immune systems, generating epidemics of allergic and inflammatory ailments in the process, so it seems our habitual abuse of the brain’s dissociative capacity is also a major public health issue. When you have social environments in which individuals feel under increasing emotional stress; when the cultural mainstream pushes the deeper significance of the aesthetic aside; and when what is being pushed forward is overweening and anaesthetic objectivity, rationality, practicality, calculation, commercialization, and standardization; then you have conditions conducive to dissociative disorders en masse.

The situation has certainly been alleviated by the burgeoning of progressive movements toward deepening ecological understanding; holistic health care; revitalized pluralistic spiritualities; and what Ron Laura, from our own university, terms ’empathetic education’.[21] However the extent of progress made in aid of these causes is often questionable. Their challenging implications engender substantial socioeconomic and political resistance rooted in an ideology taking mistaken pride in the intelligence of dissociative hard-heartedness; a pride historically supportive of misogyny and imperialism. Softening resistance to necessary change by debunking this anaesthetic ideology is therefore imperative, as is the concomitant cultural reformation of our institutions. The time has come to quit playing pernicious power games involving stupid and bloody-minded ‘bottom lines’ that cut the legs from under us. To help effect wholesome revision we need to shift the goal-posts of intellectual respectability, raising awareness in leadership circles at all levels that beauty is not a side show, window-dressing, or self-indulgent luxury with which we can readily dispense, but a quintessential hallmark of good and true mental management. Anaesthetic decision-making, on the other hand, literally makes no sense.

I am quite hopeful for the future of what ethnologist Paul Stoller calls ‘sensuous scholarship’.[22] Not only are more sensuous and fully embodied scholarly styles likely to be methodologically fruitful, but they are also liable to be a whole lot more fun. Why then can’t we aim for similar somatic, aesthetic awakenings in managerial and administrative styles? Wouldn’t the total quality of experiences and outcomes be enhanced thereby? With emphasis upon well-rounded creativity rather than arid abstraction, could we more consistently find and follow through with elegant solutions to the problems confronting us? In this collective moment of truth I would suggest that the imagination and motivation we need to act intelligently depend upon our putting beauty back into the equation.

The resonant depth and richness of the inner lives of individuals also stand to benefit immeasurably from the rehabilitation of beauty’s true value. In modern life the word ‘myth’ has assumed stubbornly cerebral connotations of unqualified falsehood. Yet master mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined his approach with these words: “I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what the myth does for you.” [23] If the comprehension of great science can be said to be completed in terms of its beauty, then that much more so is the living experience of myth grounded in the aesthetic, feeding the visceral vitality of religious faith flowing from it. Where the wholeness of this point is lost, people tend to face faith and myth as merely cerebral challenges, frequently leading to either implacable fundamentalism or implacable disbelief.

I consider this to be, for example, a substantial impediment to the growth in the West of the religious tradition to which I personally adhere. Originating in Japan some eight centuries ago, the Jodo Shin school of Pure Land Buddhism has at its heart the holistic experience of faith, or ‘shinjin’. This experience is characterized as ‘tai-ge’, ie ‘body understanding’,[24] and is conveyed with mythic metaphors of the Pure Land’s superbly natural resonance. Synaesthetic expressions such as ‘monko’, ie ‘hearing the light’, abound. However the modern Western encounter with such a tradition is awkward, and is likely to remain so until faith is given aesthetic space to move us through all the senses of our bodyminds.

An optimistic indicator that such a development might possibly be underway was the recent critical and popular success of the film ‘American Beauty’. This was a very clever piece of cinema which can be read on several levels, but what interests me most are its aesthetic and mythological resonances. The leit-motif of the film is the American Beauty rose cultivar. Roses, in Western iconography, are traditionally symbolic of passion, compassion, and unfolding perfection. They seem to carry these very meanings in this tale of perfectly imperfect people in their natural suburban habitat; an equally perfectly imperfect habitat with its glorious dead birds and plastic bags sublimely dancing on the breeze. Lester, the main character, is destined to die, but in his final year he truly lives, moving from a state of anaesthesia, complaining how sedated and comatose he feels, to a consummate posthumous state of aesthetic epiphany. And just before his life is ended Lester is asked, in all sincerity, how he is. He comments in reply that no-one has asked him that in a long, long time. With this simple act of compassion and human beauty, Lester becomes the maimed Grail King asked by the Grail Knight “What ails thee friend?”, in the process being made whole again, and the land with him.

The allegory of ‘American Beauty’ is thus in the end a modern re-enactment of a timeless myth of relationship and renewal. In these trying times what indeed should be more welcome than such a round token of transformation becoming who and where we most deeply are. Ricky, the film’s dope-dealing young mystic, reverently recollects how he was first touched by “this entire life behind things..”. His testimony echoes John Dewey, who said: “The sense of an extensive and underlying whole is the context of every experience and it is the essence of sanity”.[25] This is the singular, resonant sense of John Keats’ words concerning truth and beauty; a clarity and togetherness of what we’re about in the world. It would vindicate Keats if experience ultimately proves that for those now present on earth this really was all we needed to know.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. London: Phoenix, 1996.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers. (Edited by Betty Sue Flowers.) New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Chandrasekhar, Subrahmanyan. Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Courtois, Michel. Chinese Painting. (A volume of the History of Art series, translated by Paul Eve.) London: Heron Books, 1970.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Robinson, Rick E. The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter. Malibu, California: J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1990.

Cytowic, Richard E. The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers Revolutionary Insights into Emotions, Reasoning, and Consciousness. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1980. (First published 1934.)

The Dhammapada: The Path of Perfection. (Translated and with an introduction by Juan Mascaro.) Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973.

Fideler, David. Reviving the Academies of the Muses. Available on-line at http://www.cosmopolis.com/df/academies.html

Gold, Peter. Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1994.

Kellert, Stephen R. and Wilson, Edward O. (Editors.) The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993.

Laura, Ronald S. and Cotton, Matthew C. Empathetic Education: An Ecological Perspective on Educational Knowledge. London and Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1999.

Poincare, Henri. The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, Science and Method. (Translated by George Bruce Halsted.) Lancaster, Pennsylvania: The Science Press, 1946. (First published 1913.)

Rentschler, Ingo; Herzberger, Barbara; and Epstein, David. (Editors.) Beauty and the Brain: Biological Aspects of Aesthetics. Basel: Birkhauser Verlag, 1988.

Root-Bernstein, Robert S. ‘ The Sciences and Arts Share a Common Creative Aesthetic ‘, pp.49-82 in Tauber, A.I. (Editor.) The Elusive Synthesis: Aesthetics and Science. Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996.

Shigaraki, Takamaro. The Buddhist World of Awakening. (Translated by William T. Masuda.) Honolulu: Buddhist Study Center, Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, 1982.

Stoller, Paul. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Passing Strange and Wonderful: Aesthetics, Nature, and Culture. New York: Kodansha, 1995.

Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984. (In its tenth printing, year 2000.)

Witherspoon, Gary. Language and Art in the Navajo Universe. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1977.

NOTES


[1] From The Tables Turned: An Evening Scene on the Same Subject.

[2] Dewey (1934 / 1980), p.40.

[3] Tuan (1995), p.2.

[4] Concerning the evolutionary value of aesthetic responsiveness it is very appropriate to consider biologist Edward Wilson’s seminal theory of ‘biophilia’, the innate human affinity for the natural world, and the important work flowing from it (see Kellert et al, 1993). In connection with his theory, Wilson (1984 / 2000, p.61) directly maintains that: “Mathematics and beauty are devices by which human beings get through life with the limited intellectual capacity inherited by the species. Like a discerning palate and sexual appetite, these esthetic contrivances give pleasure. Put in more mechanistic terms, they play upon the circuitry of the brain’s limbic system in a way that ultimately promotes survival and reproduction.”

[5] See Fideler’s excellent article on the world-wide-web.

[6] From the Digha Nikaya, III. This particular translation is quoted in Mascaro’s introduction to the Dhammapada (1973), p.21.

[7] See Gold (1994).

[8] Witherspoon (1977), p.154.

[9] Chandrasekhar (1990), p.54.

[10] Ibid., p.66.

[11] Cytowic (1993) provides a useful overview of these developments in neuroscience.

[12] See Rentschler el al (1988). Along these lines, one researcher/contributor to this collection of papers (ie Jerre Levy) states, for example, that: “…in the face of challenge, when new insights are demanded, when complexity requires new structurings and new creations, these are built by the whole brain. When they are built well, the effort is rewarded by the experience of the beautiful. Poincare recognized a profound truth when he said that ” the longing for the beautiful leads us to the same choice as the longing for the useful.” “ (ibid., p.238).

[NB The latter Poincare quote may be found in Poincare (1913 / 1946), p.367.]

[13] Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson (1990), p.9.

[14] Poincare (1913 / 1946), p.368.

[15] See Courtois (1970), pp.101-110.

[16] See Cytowic (1993).

[17] See Tuan (1995), pp.168-169, and Ackerman (1996), pp.289-290. Abram (1997) presents a more in-depth treatment of the perceptual implications of synaesthesia and the potentialities of language.

[18] Root-Bernstein (1996), p.69.

[19] Ibid., p.50.

[20] Ibid., p.66.

[21] See Laura and Cotton (1999).

[22] See Stoller (1997).

[23] Campbell (1988), p.55.

[24] See Shigaraki (1982), p.72.

[25] Dewey (1934 / 1980), p.194.

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