Eternity’s Sunrise: At the Gates of Perception
Surely infiniteness is the most evident thing in the world.—George Oppen
This essay is written from notes for a talk on “dharma art” given at the 2017 Naropa Sunmer Writing Program. Its topic is the primacy of perception in artistic creation. It comes at this topic from a Buddhist psychological perspective joined with complementary views from the poetics of William Blake, Gertrude Stein, and George Oppen. The aim is to come to terms with ordinary moments of perception as the site of our most direct experience, and consider their significance in artistic practice. An inherent hurdle in the attempt is the awkward fact that perceptual experience occurs before the response of naming and categorizing it, which follows quickly and often imperceptibly. A central question is, Do we know perception before it becomes a conceptual thought about the perception, and, if so, how do we know it? One must acknowledge a gulf between immediate experience and its naming and interpretation. The latter relates to but cannot substitute for the vividness and uncertainty of the former. A second questions is, What are the implications of this for poetry and the arts? I have been inspired by Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings on dharma art, which encourage us to look intimately at perception and thought as they occur, as our first and simplest contact with being. Just to look directly, again and again with mind, at mind.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing woul
appear as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’
narrow chinks of his cavern.
— William Blake
In a 1962 essay called “The Mind’s Own Place,” poet George Oppen writes,
Modern American poetry begins with the determination to find the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and color of our lives. (Selected 173)
Oppen goes on to define the “image” as “an account of a poet’s perception,” the “data” of experience out of which poets make the poetry of their time. He refers to this image as “the thing encountered” and calls its presentation “a test of the poet’s sincerity.”1
For William Blake, engaging moments of direct perception is the key to imaginative vision. His poetic work sets two kinds of knowing in dynamic opposition: one achieved through direct perception of sense-forms, and the other through reflection upon them. He renounces John Locke’s understanding of perception as sensations received through mind’s encounter with external, nonmental objects. In Blake’s view, “Mental things are alone Real,” and Northop Frye explains that “the unit of this mental existence Blake calls . . . a “form” or an “image,” and, for Blake, “forms or images . . . exist only in perception” (Frye 15-16).
The distinction between moments of perception and those of conceptual formation raises questions about the degree to which we “know” anything. In this essay, for example, despite its announced interest in perception, the writing and thinking develop mainly by conceptual constructions, working with ideas and moving them around. But, at the source point of those ideas and then the next ones, there are moments when there is simply mental movement of some kind, “thought-movement” without any content, before the conception of notions or ideas.2 Are these first movements more or less significant when placed next to conceptions produced from them, which tend to be more accessible to understanding? And is this also the case with our other sense perceptions? Are sensed events more real and vivid as first experienced, before they are named and identified?
Imagine biting into an apple; imagine easing a splinter out of your finger; or opening the curtain onto a busy street scene outside a room. Are there “first moments” in these experiences in which your mind occupies an experience totally, or is occupied by it, before any response occurs?
And what about the attempt to “put experience into words”? How close does, say, “sparkling” get to the actual moment of taste after biting the apple? Or the word “relief” or the feeling-expression “ah-h” get to the sensation of the splinter sliding out? And in the sudden presence of colors and shapes and movement seen and heard outside a window, does a sudden change in facial expression or silently uttered “Wow” or “Whoa” comes as part of or just after that sudden event?
The Buddhist tradition has long investigated the phenomenon of perception and seems to agree with Blake that the thing sensed and its perceiver occur as a single mental event; that the reality-paradigm of an existent mental subject experiencing nonmental external objects mistakenly partitions perceptual experience into two sides, neither of which exists in a first moment of mental engagement. Khenchen Thrangu explains,
Generally . . . it seems as if the sense organs and their corresponding faculties were located inside the body and the perceived objects outside. . . . From the Buddhist point of view, this is certainly not the case. In our view, the eye consciousness merely perceives a mental image of the form to be perceived. The form is not really external, but merely mental. . . . The mind itself appears in this form. . . . Therefore we teach that all appearances are mind. (Everyday 36)
William Blake’s poetic work is concerned with engaging perception through “imagination,” by which he means the capacity of mind to experience perceptual form fully: “All Things Exist in the Human Imagination” (Blake 223); “All Animals & Vegetations, the Earth & Heaven [are] contain’d in the All Glorious Imagination” (J 49:13). For Blake, imagination is the formative, perceptual power of mind, to be distinguished from its rational or generalizing power, which, removed from the form or image of perceptions, bases its observations and analyses on the separation of perceiving subject and perceived object. For him, the “body” is the imaginative power of mind in the body’s form or image, and is eternal in the realm of perception: “The Eternal Body of Man is The IMAGINATION” (273). The mind’s reasoning or rationalizing power apprehends, properly, the energy and definition of imaginative form, but, removed from full vision, becomes an abstracted mental arbiter substituting concepts for those forms.
Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and Reason is the bound or
outward circumference of Energy. (34)
Reason, or the Ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when
we know more. (2)
One of the clearest presentations of Blake’s view of perception is found in his poem, Europe a Prophecy.
Five windows light the cavern’d Man; thro’ one he breathes the air;
Thro’ one, hears music of the spheres; thro’ one, the eternal vine
Flourishes, that he may receive the grapes; thro’ one can look.
And see small portions of the eternal world that ever groweth;
Thro’ one, himself pass out what time he please, but will not;
For stolen joys are sweet, & bread eaten in secret pleasant. (60)
Here the five senses are pictured as windows surrounding a “cavern’d man.” The windows represent five ways mind can “pass out” or extend awareness to the “infinite” nature of the thing perceived, released from the contracted view of a self privately savoring its objects and sensations. Blake’s poetics is built on a view that through attention to sense perceptions, one can open to eternal “vision” in them and “see the world in a grain of sand.”
Chogyam Trungpa presents a summary of the Buddhist understanding of the relation between these two perspectives; that of selfhood, or ego, and that of mind’s naturally vast space of ”panoramic awareness.”
If we see the precise details of our activity, this awareness also creates a certain spa ce. Being aware of a situation on a small scale also brings awareness on a larger scale. Out ofthis develops panoramic awareness . . . awareness of the overall pattern rather that the focusing of attention upon details.” (Cutting Through 168)
Through paying attention to ordinary moments of perception, we begin to question the substantiality of both the object of perception and the one assumed as its subject.
Here the nonexistence of ego is not a philosophical matter but simply a matter of percep tion. Perception is unable to trace back its existence to an origin, so it becomes justsheer energy, without a beginner of the perception and without any substance. It is just simple perception. (Chaos 131)
Trungpa breaks down acts of perception into three aspects: experience, emptiness, and luminosity.3 In its first aspect, as experience, perception is the simple what-it-is-ness of sensory-mental events as they occur: “White is white, black is black, etc.” (before their naming). In its second aspect, as emptiness, this experience is seen to be without any inhering identity; he adds, “This is because there is movement.” The experience is simply one of a particular energetic quality of mind and that energy’s ephemerality. And third, as luminosity, because of its nonsubstantial nature and its sensible presence, there is a “sense of sharp boundary and clarity . . . a sense of things being seen as they are, unmistakably” (131-32). [italics added]
When you recognize the insubstantiality and you experience that insubstantiality, that’s called the experience of emptiness; and when you recognize the cognitive lucidity and you experience that cognitive lucidity, that’s called the experience of lucidity. But you can’t really have one experience without the other because they are not separate things. (Pointing 175)
Gertrude Stein’s poetics is also based in the direct perception of “things” as they arise, before establishing an identity for them; therefore, she says, they are experienced as both present and absent at once. She too argues that perceptual things can be seen as they are, before their objectification.
In seeing that thing shall we see it without it turning into identity, the moment is not a moment and the sight is not the thing seen and yet it is. (Master-pieces 153-4)
Traditional Buddhist teachings describe all mental-sensory phenomena as “dependently arisen.”4 Perceptual and conceptual events occur in a dynamically shifting web of interdependence with other events. Things arise from infinite “causes and conditions” set by previous happenings, too many to ever attribute any as sole cause. If you ask, “Why is that person smiling?” you may have an idea, but could you ever identify a singe cause? If you ask yourself, ”Why am I smiling,” you also may not be able to say with any singular certainty. Many things have gone into producing that smile or any other phenomenal event—and it in turn will influence causes and conditions for other phenomena. Although each “thing” of perception appears distinctively, each occurs within the web of interdependent relations, and none lasts beyond the instant of its appearance. In the next instant both the thing and the web have dissolved, to reappear altered in a next moment’s mental-sense event and its infinite relations. In Buddhist phenomenology, this interdependence of phenomena constitutes the “relative truth” of the world. Ultimately, however, that world or web is no more than a big idea; there are no fixed reference points that establish it as a reality. None of the moments of perception from which the idea of a web or a world arises have any existence outside the relative, but from seeing these moments of experience directly, it is possible to also see the “overall pattern” of their interconnectedness, or, as Thich Nhat Hanh has called it, our “interbeing.”5
Basically, it seems to be nobody’s world, since there is nobody, as such. The energy that is constantly taking place does not belong to anybody; it is a natural, organic process. But on this basis, we function as though the world belongs to us. I function as if I have myself, as if I do exist. (Trungpa, Chaos 131)
Such a view may help explain what Stein means when she writes, “the moment is not a moment and the sight is not the thing seen and yet it is.”
Through a description based in traditional Buddhist psychology, Trungpa takes us to the nature of the moment of perception itself.
When you first perceive something, there is a shock of no conceptual mind operating at all. Then something begins to occur. You begin to perceive: whether you like it or not, you begin to see colors and perceptions, to open your eyes. . . . That non-reference point mind can become highly powerful and extraordinarily sensitive. (Perception 42)
In perception, there is a mental-sense event of some kind occurring in the space of awareness. This event is known as it occurs, nonconceptually, before reference points of perceiver and perceived develop. Because it arises within the web of dependently arisen relations, there is no singular “identity” for either its apparent subject or object. If this Buddhist view is accurate as to the nature of perception, how and why did the notion of an existent subject and object become so deeply ingrained in us? Trungpa writes,
How then does belief in an “I” and the whole neurotic process begin? Roughly, according to the Madhyamikas [a Mahayana Buddhist school], whenever a perception of form occurs, there is an immediate reaction of fascination and uncertainty on the part of an implied perceiver of the form. This reaction is almost instantaneous. It takes only a fraction of a fraction of a second. And as soon as we have established a recognition of what the thing is, our next response is to give it a name. With the name of course comes concept. We tend to conceptualize the object, which means that at this point we are no longer able to perceive things as they actually are. We have created a kind of padding, a filter or veil between ourselves and the object. (Cutting Through 106-7)
Missing the direct moment of perception, its energy gets lost in the “conceptual padding” of reactive thoughts and feelings, even if a residue image of it remains in memory. From that residue, we may build a story from or about the experience, based in a replica of the original, but the story (or poem) may only be a conceptual abstraction from the original moment and lack its direct sense of experience, emptiness, and luminosity. This aligns with the classic writing workshop prescription to “show” rather than “tell” in one’s writing; the difference between, say, being told that a plumber came to fix the leak under the sink, and being told of the plumber’s grunts as he wrangles among the pipes (an event happening as I write this). If creative writing does not enter in at this sensory level of experience, it tends to feel intellectually distanced or self-consciously contrived.
In the Buddhist tradition, the meditation practice of settling into open, mindful attention is recommended for getting to know the original energy of mind—seeing the process of how things appear and disappear and how thoughts and ideas develop from them, along with the gaps between them.
Perception is immediate, and we perceive only one thing at a time. By constantly applying mindfulness to that one-shot mental perception, you get a complete picture: that is happening, that is happening, that is happening. There is no escape. Even if you try to escape, this is also a one-shot deal that it would be easy to focus on: you could be mindful of your escape; you could be mindful of your sexual fantasy or your aggression fantasy. (Trungpa, Treasury 318)
Moments of sense contact occur continuously; they comprise our life. Experiencing their “first-thought” vividness—whether emotionally comfortable, uncomfortable, or neither—rather than following our second-thought responses and commentaries, seems to go along with Blake’s distinction between energy and abstracted reflection.6
But how do we know nonconceptual experience? We know it because mind is there at the time things arise, if not yet in its familiar guise as “subject.” It is there in the experience, emptiness, and clarity of the perception. For Trungpa, the ability to be with perceptions as they occur is developed by “constantly applying mindfulness to that one-shot mental perception. . . ” (318)
With a stable, clear attention, a mental event can be experienced firsthand, “unconditionally,” without the reference points that provide interpretations or contextual meaning for it. It appears unmediated as a “symbol of itself” (Trungpa, Perception 32)—like a sunrise or a crack of thunder or a smile. In such attention, perception experiences itself.
We’re talking about the principles of perception. In order to realize unconditional symbolism, we have to appreciate the empty gap of our own state of mind and how we begin to project ourselves into that nonreference point. (Perception 43)
In a question-and-answer period following a talk, a student asked Trungpa, “How can you tell the difference between perception and projection?” and his reply was, “In the case of a projection, you’re waiting for something to bounce back and confirm your existence. Perception is just sort of an antenna that exists” (Chaos138).
Experienced with the antenna of present awareness, a perception occurs without name or identity, without a past, present, or future; without goodness, badness, or indifference; just as it is. All descriptive or judgmental content is added on in the subsequent subject-object division. And, since even moments of subjective response initially come from nonconceptual movements of mind, these too may be first encountered as they are.
Trungpa’s, Blake’s, and Stein’s perspectives on the quality of “vision” or awareness within direct perception seem to agree that “seeing things as they are” happens at a preconceptual level of attention to mental events as they arise and dissolve. Practicing with active attention, one experiences the direct is-ness of any perception and gains trust and confidence in relating to it as a symbol of itself. In this way “the padding . . . between ourselves and the object” is gradually reduced.
On the plane of speech and writing, an analogue to the web of interdependent phenomenal relations is the world of language, another limitless web of interdependent elements—phonological, morphological, grammatical, lexical, semantic, etc. Any alteration in one of these elements also causes shifts in all the others.
For poetry and creative writing, a particularly relevant area of perceptual attention is that of the phenomenality of language. Because words can both reify and deconstruct ideas, it is illuminating to look into how they seem to be operating it in any given instance. It is often hard to tell which comes first, the mental-sense event of a word or its implications for conceptual meaning. Some say that the codes of language create the world, but which world? The one directly perceived through perceptual attention, or the one built out of projections of self and other? Because of their dual nature as direct sensory experience and as vehicles of semantic meaning, we relate to words in both these ways all the time, though primarily as concept-vehicles. Because of language’s crucial role in communication and because of the intimate relation between thought and language, we often defer to half-verbalized thought-commentary and subconscious “conversation” as an ingrained mediation of our peerceptual experience.
Trungpa discusses the difference between direct perception and its mediation by verbalized thinking:
Sometimes, when we perceive the world, we perceive without language. We perceive spontaneously, with a prelanguage system. But sometimes when we view the world, first we think a word and then we perceive. In other words, the first instance is directly feeling or perceiving the universe. So either you look and see beyond language—as first perception—or you see the world through the filter of your thoughts, by talking to yourself. (Shambhala 53)
The attempt to buffer the rawness and unpredictability of our experience through semi-verbalized thought at time crumbles in the intensity of the perception. Trungpa gives the example of moments of sudden emotional energy too strong to be filtered by subconscious mediation.
Everyone knows what it is like to feel things directly. Intense emotion—passion and aggression and jealousy—don’t have a language. They are too intense in that first flash. After that first flash, then you begin to think in your mind: “I hate you” or “I love you” or you say, “Should I love you so much?” A little conversation takes place in your mind.” (53)
Poetry, as an art, engages language in ways that draw attention to words’ perceptual phenomenality to a greater degree than, say, ordinary conversation or expository writing do, where clarity of discourse depends on reducing ambiguities between sound and meaning. In its lean toward the perceptual, both in experience broadly and in language, poetry triggers provocative interactions between perception and conception, and these influence our sense of “meaning” in a given word or passage. In this way, poetry tends to derail semantic expectation and expand possibilities of meaning.
Gertrude Stein is known for a writing that veers radically toward the perceptual side of language and disturbs normative conduits between word and concept, emphasizing the “thingness” of words over their operation as concept-vehicles. Here is a passage from “As a Wife Has A Cow A Love Story”:
And in that, as and in that, in that and and in that, so that,
so that and in that, and in that and so that and as for that and
as for that and that. In that. In that and and for that as for that
and in that. Just as soon and in that. In that as that and
just as soon. Just as soon as that. . . . (A Book 17-18)
This passage, in its apparently untethered relation to extralinguistic context, demonstrates an extreme bias toward verbal phenomenality over reference, utilizing simple, everyday diction and phrasing. The words hammer or ring as much or more than they contribute to coherent thought-structures, and the repetition of “that”-phrases adds another rhythmic layer that further highlights the sensory patterning. In her novel, The Making of Americans, Stein clarifies her affinity for language experienced in such perceptually foregrounded ways:
Every word I am ever using in writing has for me a very existing being. . . . In writing a word must be for me really an existing thing . . . (539-40)
Such attention to discrete linguistic events also forces attention on the gaps or hesitations between words and phrases normally blurred in the ideal of seamless discourse (e.g., that can be felt if you read aloud, “In that and and for that as for that and in that”). This can result in a striking readerly aporia—conceptual nullity—experienced as either clarity or obscurity, pleasurable or painful, or all of these, partly on the basis of a reader’s willingness to give into the physiological cognition and relax semantic expectations.
In “The Mind’s Own Place,” George Oppen writes of the poem as “an account of the poet’s perception,” and in the poem “Of Being Numerous” of the conceptual silence that naturally occurs at that level of attention.
In the sense of transparence,
I don’t mean that much can be explained.
Clarity in the sense of silence. (Selected 96)
This silence, the clarity of insight or bewilderment following a moment of direct perception, may simply confuse, or lead to
All that we see is Vision—William Blake
Oppen’s trust in perception as test of a poet’s sincerity, Stein’s concern with the thing seen or heard before identity is laid upon it, and Blake’s poetic path toward imaginative vision through direct perception, all correspond with Trungpa’s presentation of immediate experience as the origin-point of awareness, described here by Ridzin Shikpo, one of Trungpa’s early Western students:
To him Being was something primordial, timeless, and yet immediately present. Being was not found in anything other than the immediacy of experience, yet it had a dimension of vast vision not present in the momentary, passing aspect of experience.
He said that all creativity and significance came from this immediacy and from nowhere else. (Shikpo 222)
Shikpo goes on to convey Trungpa’s view of the inherently creative and visionary nature of being. Fundamental being or reality is described as having three inseparable aspects, those of space, movement, and aliveness.
There was a natural process of movement within Being, a central expression of fresh creativity that somehow presented the truth and value of Being to itself through the medium of the person. As to the question why there was anything at all, he said that if you were trying to describe the nature of reality, you could speak of it in terms of an ever-yielding space, movement within that space, and a quality of aliveness permeating both. These three qualities were really not independent of each other, only described separately for convenience. (222) [italics added]
Shikpo then provides further context from this teaching on the non-dual or self-less basis of perceptual reality.
The ever-yielding space suggests an intrinsic quality of movement and a certain sensitivity to it; movement implies space in which movement takes place and an aliveness giving rise to it. To be alive always implies a sense of movement and unfoldment.” (222)
If space, movement, and aliveness constitute the most basic ground of our experience, how might we develop an attention that remains “sensitive” to it, and perhaps expands from there to become “vast vision”?
In 1972, Trungpa and Herbert Guenther, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar and translator, gave a public seminar on Buddhist tantra, later published as The Dawn of Tantra. In that seminar Guenther speaks of direct perception as the basis of artistic vision:
Transformation from ordinary perception to primordial intrinsic awareness can take place when we try to see things differently, perhaps somewhat as an artist does. Every artist knows that he can see in two different ways. The ordinary way is characterized by the fact that perception is always related to some end other than the perception itself. . . .But we can also look at things and enjoy their presence aesthetically. . . . When we look like this, we will immediately notice [that] the entire network of mental factors in which we usually labor just drops off. Everyone can do this but, of course, it requires work.” (Dawn 17-18)
This view seems to hold the kernal of Trungpa’s later teachings on “dharma art” as a path of practice of active attention based in mindfulness that then enlarges into awareness and vision.
William Blake also associates the experience of direct perception with imaginative vision, and with the effort required to develop attention to it.
He would tell his artist-friends, ‘You have the same faculty as I, . . . only you do not trust or cultivate it. . . . You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision. . . . (Gilchrist 364)
INSPIRATION AND MEMORY
The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything.—Gertrude Stein
Blake, Stein, and Trungpa each connect perception to inspiration and creative vision, and contrast it with dependence on the function of memory by which we divert perceptual attention to familiar thoughts and ideas. Trungpa attributes this reaction to uncertainty and fear in the face of the “present situation,” whatever it might be, and contrasts it with the inspiration that comes from direct contact with its energy, as uncomfortable or uncertain as that might be.
Memory is a very cowardly way of dealing with a situation. Since you are not in direct contact with the present situation, you have to refer back to what used to be. . . . whereas if you’re relating directly with the present situation as is the case with inspiration, then you do not require memory to work your way through the situation. You can tell everything from the present situation. . . . You have the information of the past . . . in terms of the present situation, rather than purely in the form of what was. (Glimpses 85)
It should be clear that it is not memory per se—the mind’s faculty for recordiing elements of experience in a kind of cognitive storage—that is identified as a problem here, but rather our tendency to defer to those stored elements as reference points for confirming ourselves as something separate from the “present situation,” whose presence might feel too open or direct at times, and not to our liking, or too much to our liking.
The basic awareness that, in Buddhist teachings, all beings are said to possess is free of a past, present, or future.7 In speaking of the “present situation” here, Trungpa is referring to a present that exists before or beyond these “three times,” one that is complete and includes “information of the past” as part of its awareness. “Memory,” on the other hand, he says, “means that you are looking at a past version of the present mind.” (Treasury 327-8). “It is an active process in which consciousness picks certain themes and classifies them into particular connections . . .” (Glimpses 76).
Present attention is not conditioned by ideas of “now” or “then” or stories sewn together from remnants of past experiences in an attempt to get hold of the present. Part of such attention may include looking into who is experiencing this experience as it occurs, as well as who the person is I think of as “me,” filtered through memories.
Such direct personal examination raises questions of identity, and with them, at times, emotional reactions of vulnerability, anger, fear, etc. Looking openly at what arises, including emotional energy, does not erase the memory of situations associated with that pain, or the demands and challenges of working with these energies, but it does help bring memories into the immediacy of the “present situation,” in which their nature may be looked at and felt directly and thereby somewhat processed. We see if we are able and willing to be with such moments and what the effect of doing so might be.
Artistic practice is also a way of meeting the energy of a present situation and letting it speak itself, discover its own form, find its own image, rather than be diverted into a story patched together from habitual responses. In this way, memory can begin to become inspiration. Although creative work always involves some negotiation or dance between perceptual movement and conceptual response, to be “lively” and keep its insights fresh it must stay in touch with direct perceptual energies as these arise.
BLAKE: INSPIRATION AND MEMORY
Northrop Frye says that “the first point in Blake to get clear . . . is the infinite superiority of the distinct perception of things to the use of memory to classify them into general principles” (Symmetry 16). He explains Blake’s view of the perceptual experience of mental images or forms:
The image or form of perception is the content of knowledge. . . . Memory of an image must always be less than the perception of the image. . . . (Frye 16)
For Blake, the turn toward memory and away from the immediacy of perception results in the negation of life’s energies through the presumption of an independently existing self, which he refers to as a “spectre.”
The Negation is the Spectre; the Reasoning Power in Man
This is fallen body: an Incrustation over my Immortal
Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated always
To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination
Blake’s sense of selfhood and its contraction from imaginative or “divine vision” corresponds to the difference between ego and awareness as presented in Buddhist psychology. According to Trungpa,
Basically, ego is a psychological bank, or pool, in which we store memories and ideas so that whenever we are running out of external entertainment, we could churn them out and entertain ourselves. It’s like an animal with no food to eat who burps out the food from its stomach and begins to chew it all over again. . . . But in experiential terms, in your immediate experience, you begin to realize that there is no one to keep you company, and you have no hold on anything. (Treasury 494)
When our search for entertainment dissolves in the face of direct perception, the mind paying attention suddenly experiences itself as that experience. Blake writes: “All you behold; tho’ it appears Without, it is Within, in your Imagination, of which this world of Mortality is but a Shadow” (J 71:17). In allusion to the classical Greek “muses” of inspiration and knowledge in the arts and sciences, Blake attributes the imaginatively bankrupt state of selfhood and its projections to the “Daughters of Memory,” and the creative state of imaginative or divine vision to the “Daughters of Inspiration.” Blake scholar John H. Jones writes,
Memory, as a source of creativity, is, according to Blake, a negative element associated with classical models, theft, and perversion that has gained power over inspiration. . . . Blake writes, ‘A plagiary . . . works only from Memory,’ and argues that while ‘Fable or Allegory is Formed by the Daughters of Memory,’ ‘Imagination’ is Surrounded by the daughters of Inspiration’ and produces an ‘Eternal Vision . . . of All that Exists.’ (Jones 135)
Memory, as an alternative to direct perception, promotes adherence to the notion of a consistent and continuous self as the subject of experience. In doing so, it adheres to further notions of success and failure for the survival of that self and its productions, based in projection. As a retreat from direct vision, memory pours old wine into old bottles, while inspiration looks toward the freshly emergent moment, and its just-pressed wine finds new forms from its insight. Such a moment could certainly come as a sudden recollection, but “reality” here is discovered in immediacy rather than in subjectivity.
GERTRUDE STEIN: BEING AND MEMORY
In her 1936 essay, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?” Gertrude Stein also considers the function of memory in artistic creation.
At any moment when you are you you are you without the memory of yourself because if you remember yourself while you are you you are not for purposes of creating you. . . .” (310)
She makes a distinction between identity as the way one “remembers” oneself in the midst of doing anything, and entity as that which is simply one’s “being” in the act or process of doing anything. “Master-pieces,” she argues, are made in such activity, and as such they transcend or undercut identities constructed from memory.
Mostly people live in identity and memory that is when they think. They know they are they because their little dog knows them, and so they are not an entity but an identity. And being so, memory is necessary to make them exist and so they cannot create masterpieces. (314)
From a writerly perspective, Stein raises the issue of identity or reified self-consciousness that comes with a sense that one is writing for an audience, of either oneself or others:
If I did write for myself and strangers if I did I would not really be writing because already then identity would take the place of entity. (311)
Stein then extends the distinction between identity and entity to one between human nature, concerned with relations of time and identity, and human mind, attention engaged in present being/entity. Since both time and identity are conceptually born, they are not a part of mind’s innate creativity.
Think about how you create if you do create you do not remember yourself as you do create. And yet time and identity is what you tell about as you create only while you create they do not exist. . . .
And do you create yes if you exist but time and identity do not exist. We live in time and identity but as we are we do not know time and identity. (316)
Time and identity do not exist other than as conceptual references and therefore can only be known as images of thought. It is within being and not merely in reference to it that one experiences the “space, movement and aliveness” earlier proposed as intrinsic aspects of being. In Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science, Steven Meyer explains that, for Stein,
Writing, no less that the human mind—or any entity for that matter—is an activity, not a substance; accordingly, it is made, in [the psychologist William] James’s phrasing, of the same nonsubstantial—neither substantial nor insubstantial—“stuff as things are.” (114)
In the activity or entity of being, before identity is installed as a condition of experience, it is difficult—though not impossible—for a consciousness to “know” its own being. Master-pieces, in Stein’s view, by the fact of act of their production-in-the-act-of writing and perception, give proof that being knows itself before identity is laid on it.
It is not extremely difficult not to have identity but it is extremely difficult the knowing not having identity. . . . [Master-pieces] are knowing that there is no identity and producing while identity is not.” (314)
For writing to be creative, Stein suggests, mind must remain in nondual contact with, or as, its energy of mental moments as they arise. Such at-the-moment-of perception is the sign, for Stein, of a “master-piece.”
And so it is always true that the master-piece has nothing to do with human nature or with identity, it has to do with the human mind and the entity that is with a thing in itself and not in relation. (312)
For Stein, as for Blake and Trungpa, artistic creation requires that perception be met with active attention, before the particular qualities of its energy get fixed in frameworks of time and identity through conceptual operations. As mentioned earlier, she points to the simultaneous presence and absence of things as the source of their energy and vividness.
I was just thinking about anything and in thinking about anything I saw something. In seeing that thing shall we see it without it turning into identity, the moment is not a moment and the sight is not the thing seen and yet it is. (315)
As example, Stein offers the sudden appearance, in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, of a human footprint on the beach of Crusoe’s thought-to-be uninhabited island, twelve or so years into his shipwrecked solitude. She calls it “one of the most perfect examples of the non-existence of time and identity which makes a master-piece” (316).
It happen’d one Day about Noon going towards my Boat, I was exceedingly surpriz’d with the Print of a Man’s naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand: I stood like one Thunder-struck or as if I had seen an Apparition. . . . (Crusoe 121)
Herbert Guenther explains the Buddhist view of the simultaneous presence and absence, or substantiality and insubstantiality, of phenomena in perceptual experience in a way that helps expand Stein’s consideration:
Buddhist philosophy does not make the distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. The phenomenon is the noumenon and the noumenon is the phenomenon; not in the sense of mathematical equation, but in the sense that you cannot have one without the other. The technical statement of this is that there is appearance and there is also shunyata [i.e., emptiness]; but shunyata is not somewhere else, it is in the appearance. It is its open dimension. The appearance never really implies any restriction or limitation. If there were such a limitation, we could never get out of it. (Dawn 19)
In Stein’s view, the “thing in itself” found in master-pieces is conveyed universally because of its simultaneous absence of identity and presence of being. She argues that masterpieces transcend temporally and culturally relative forms and meanings because they are produced in the human mind and not from the habits and concerns of human nature.
[A] curious thing about master-pieces is . . . there is in the thing we call the human mind something that makes it hold itself just the same. The manner and habits of Bible time or Greek or Chinese have nothing to do with ours today but the master-pieces exist just the same and they do not exist because of their identity. . . they do not exist by human nature . . ., they exist because they come to be as something that is an end in itself and in that respect it is opposed to the business of living which is relation and necessity.” (Master-pieces 312) [italics added]
In Stein’s poetics, a deferral to memory is associated with human nature (“relation and necessity. . . the business of living”), while creative being is associated with human mind and the clarity that comes with things perceived as “ends in themselves.”
This is what makes secondary writing, it is remembering, it is very curious you begin to write something and suddenly you remember something and if you continue to remember your writing gets very confused. (313)
On the other hand,
If you do not remember while you are writing, it may seem confused to others but actually it is clear and eventually that clarity will be clear, that is what a master-piece is . . . . (313)
Clarity that is clear from the way the mind naturally “holds itself” in perception reveals things as they are. Its insight recognizes the unconditional symbolism of phenomena, and, for Stein, this is the hallmark of an artistic masterpiece.
As mentioned, in a Buddhist view, perceptual clarity is cultivated through the mindful attention of meditation and through the post-meditation practice of panoramic awareness. Trungpa associates the latter, especially, with artistic discipline and confidence in terms reminiscent of Stein’s:
This particular kind of practice is connected with identifying with the activities one is involved in. This awareness practice could apply to artwork or any other activity. It requires confidence. You cannot have discipline without confidence, otherwise it becomes a kind of torturing process. . . . Working that way, a person is not concerned with producing masterpieces. He is just involved with the things that he is doing. Somehow the idea of a masterpiece is irrelevant. The masterpiece, the perfect work of art comes as a by-product of this process of identifying with what you are doing. (Glimpses 80)
GEORGE OPPEN, ONE AND MANY
Although Oppen doesn’t use the terms “inspiration” or “memory” per se, his serial poem “Of Being Numerous” sets up a dialectical relation between the singular and the relational that, though often read politically, can also be understood at the level of perception.
In “The Mind’s Own Place,” Oppen writes of the poet’s role in re-engaging the word with “reality,” which he defines phenomenologically as “the things that exist.” He quotes Bertrand Russell, “If I were to describe reality as I found it, I would have to include my arm,” and adds,
It is the arbitrary fact . . . which creates the impact of the poets. The ‘shock of recognition’, when it is anything, is that. If we can hold the word [i.e., the word “reality”] to its meaning . . .—a collective, not an abstract noun—then we will not have on the one hand the demand that the poet circumstantially describe everything that we already know, and declare every belief that we already hold, nor on the other hand the ideal of the poet without any external senses at all. (Selected 174)
Oppen’s poetics aligns with this bias toward “the arbitrary fact” of perception as the source of insight into reality, overriding or undercutting conventions of poetic description or declaration. The “poet without any external senses” suggests one working purely on the basis of conceptual formulations, inclining toward remembered ideas, gestures, and values, rather than toward the emergent mental event and its “image.”
It is possible to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet’s perception; of the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness. (175)
Like Blake’s and Stein’s, Oppen’s real world is one of acts of perception, energetic moments of mind experiencing itself in dynamic forms or images. “Of Being Numerous” opens with these lines:
There are things we live among
and to see them
is to know ourselves.
In seeing the things “we live among,” we get to know ourselves, and in that way our actions or art may achieve a “truthfulness/ Which illumines speech.” (105)
Poetry intends clear pictures of the world in verse which means only to be clear, to be honest, to produce the realization of reality and to construct a form out of no desire for the trick of gracefulness, but in order to make it possible to grasp, to hold the insight which is the content of the poem. (176)
Beyond ideological argument or aesthetic effect, or other discursive virtues such as verbal grace or conceptual transparency, Oppen argues that the poem’s actual content is its insight, its immediate clarity of perception through the image of that perception. This is the reality possible to poetry and the arts, and, like Blake, Oppen contrasts it with other senses of the real generalized from reflection or rationalization.
It is not to say that the poet is immune to the “real” world to say that he is not likely to find the moment, the image, in which a political generalization or any other generalization will prove its truth. . . . (Selected 176)
So, for Oppen too, attuning mind to perception is the practice of the artist: “The poet means to trust his direct perceptions” (179).
In “Of Being Numerous,” the “shipwreck of the singular” emerges as a primary poetic image-motif. It can be read sociopolitically, perhaps as the collapse of romanticized individualism in a complexly collectivized modern world, but it can also be read as the “shock of recognition” that comes with any moment/ “arbitrary fact” perceived as it is, a writerly and readerly experience of “first thought.”
Coincidentally, like Stein, Oppen invokes Robinson Crusoe in relation to the quandary of the individual and the social, the singular and the in-relation, “the isolation of the actual” and “what the world is for us” (101).
And the discovery of fact bursts
In a paroxysm of emotion
Now as always. Crusoe
We say was
So we have chosen.
From among its polyvalent semantic possibilities, I tend to equate “the discovery of fact” in this passage with the poem’s “shipwreck of the singular” motif, and with that moment of first perception that, as in the poetics of Blake, Stein, and Trungpa, Oppen regards as the generative site of artistic practice, in which the presence and absence of appearances arise together. This is the imaginative vision of the “human mind,” and to be “rescued” from that implies a fear or distaste of the ambiguous and the unpositioned.
To dream of that beach
For the sake of an instant in the eyes
The absolute singular
The unearthly bonds
Of the singular
Which is the bright light of shipwreck
Later in the poem, Oppen writes of artistic or creative practice:
One must not come to feel he has a thousand threads
in his hands,
He must somehow see the one thing;
This is the level of art
There are other levels
But there is no other level of art
In this way, “Of Being Numerous” can be read as a self-study of poetic methodology, an ars poetica, whose principle platform—reminiscent of Stein’s sign of the masterpiece—is the poem’s necessary encounter with “the one thing” of perception, the “image,” with its inherent clarity of insight. This of course includes looking into and seeing the “numerous” interdependent relations that arise ineluctably along with it. In fact, the poem might be said to move and develop at least partly by choosing among these interdependent relations as they offer new moments of perception and insight to attention, while holding the mind free of generalized commentary and the consolations of memory.
Inquisitiveness is the seed syllable of the artist.—Chogyam Trungpa
The poets invoked here each attempt to illuminate the nature of artistic creation by defining it as direct engagement with ordinary moments of perception. Since those moments arise first nonconceptually—as accidents of mind or shocks of recognition—it is tricky to write about this process without sabotaging the point that our immediate experience is present, absent, lucid, and ephemeral all at once. Its energetic appearances arise and dissolve and are never the same as any name or interpretation that might be given to them.
Moments of human experience—distinct, transitory, and open-ended—are the life of the mind. At some point, experientially, “I” and “it” interpenetrate and dissolve into, what? The essence of our experience cannot be conceptually captured or explained. Therefore we are continually inspired to look and feel further.
The notion of looking at things as they are is a very important concept. We cannot even call it a concept, it is an experience. Look! Why do we look at all? Or we could say, Listen. Why do we listen at all? Why do we feel at all? Why do we taste? The one and only answer is that there is such a thing as inquisitiveness in our makeup. Inquisitiveness is the seed syllable of the artist . . . with inquisitveness we have a connection.” (Trungpa, Perception 157)
George Oppen closes “Of Being Numerous” with an excerpt from a letter written by Walt Whitman to his mother, in which he tells of his evening walks to view the sunset as it illuminates the “Statue of [the lady] Freedom” atop the U.S. Capitol building. The excerpt and the poem end with Whitman’s words: “I love to go down & look at it, the sun when it is nearly down shines on the headpiece & it dazzles & glistens like a big star, it looks quite . . . ,” and here Oppen interrupts the excerpt and lets its description open into space—a pause in its movement toward an appropriate qualifier. He then drops the concluding word onto its own line, a few spaces down, as the final word of the poem:
curious . . .’
With this verbal gesture, the “isolation of the actual” is experienced as the last word-image of a long, many-sectioned poem engaged with, among other themes, the role and nature of perception and the infinite wonder of connection. In an interview, Oppen says of this closing and its word, “I mean the awareness. . . I suppose it’s nearly a sense of awe, simply to feel that the thing is there and that it’s quite something to see.”8
1 The term “image” here should not just suggest a photograph-like representation of an object or scene; in this context its meaning is broader and could include the direct presentation any sense or mental experience, not simply in visual form. Ezra Pound’s definition of an image as “that which presents an intellectual or emotional complex in an instant of time” may come close to the sense in which Oppen, and perhaps Blake too, intend.
2 In the Buddhist Abhidharma teachings, thinking, or mental-consciousness, is considered a sixth sense consciousness (along with those of sight, smell, taste, touch, and smell). It is the “mental sensitivity” that arises directly (nonconceptually) along with these other sense consciousnesses (Trungpa, Treasury 276-8). As such, thoughts, as well as the five sense perceptions, first arise as mental phenomena that can be experienced with mindfulness, before they take on conceptual content.
3 The terms “luminosity,” “clarity,” and “lucidity” seem to be used interchangeably by Trungpa in this context of the third aspect of perception.
4 In Sanskrit, the traditional Buddhist term for “dependent arising” (sometimes translated as “dependent origination”) is pratitysamutpada.
5 “Inter-being” is the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s term for the interdependence of all phenomena.
6 Allen Ginsberg and Trungpa coined the slogan, “First Thought, Best Thought” while writing a poem together at Naropa University. Trungpa writes, “First thought” “refers to any first fresh thought that comes at the end of some babbling. At the end of a string of little babblings, you have a fresh beginning, a new first fresh thought happening.” Profound Treasury Vol. III, p. 318.
7 In the “timeless” present of moments of perception, where no existent moment of “thingness’ can be found, “past, present, and future” have no meaning. This sense of the timelessness of phenomenal experience seems also to be what Blake refers to as “small portions of the eternal world that ever groweth” in the passage from Europe, A Prophecy quoted earlier in this essay.
8 Oppen, George, Interview with L.S. Denbo. In Speaking with George Open. Ed. Richard Swigg. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., 2012.
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. NY: Doubleday, 1988.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: W.W. Norton & CO., 1975.
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1974.
Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake.Vol. I. NY: Phaeton Press, 1969.
Guenther, Herbert V. and Chogyam Trungpa. The Dawn of Tantra. Boulder CO: Shambhala, 1975.
Jones, John H., Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilation. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Meyer, Steven. Irresistible Dictation. Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 2001.
Oppen, George, Selected Poems. NY: New Directions, 2003.
Oppen, George, Interview with L.S. Denbo. In Speaking with George Open. Ed. Richard Swigg. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., 2012.
Shikpo, Ridzin. . “The Highest Maha Ati Teachings.” In Recalling Chogyam Trungpa. Ed. Fabrice Midal. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.
Stein, Gertrude, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?” in Gertrude Stein: Selections. Ed. Joan Retallack. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2008.
Stein, Gertrude. The Making of Americans. NY: Something Else Press, 1966.
Stein, Gertrude. A Book Concluding With As A Wife Has A Cow: A Love Story. West Glover VT: Something Else Press, 1973.
Thrangu, Khenchen, Pointing Out the Dharmakaya. Auckland NZ: Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal, 2002.
Thrangu, Kenchen. Everyday Consciousness and Primordial Awareness. Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, 2002.
Trungpa, Chogyam. “Synchronizing Mind and Body.” In Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior. Boulder CO: Shambhala, 1988.
Trungpa, Chogyam. Glimpses of Abhidharma. Boston: Shambhala, 1975.
Trungpa, Chogyam. Profound Treasury Vol.. I. The Path of Individual Liberation. Shambhala, 2013.
Trungpa, Chogyam. Orderly Chaos: The Mandala Principle..Boston: Shambhala, 1991.
Trungpa, Chogyyam, True Perception. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.