Mediums & Muses

Hypnotic seance

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As I do every spring, I am teaching  my Aesthetics class. As might be expected, one of the subjects I address is the nature of artistic creativity and the creation of the arts. Putting things rather simply (perhaps too simply) one classic issue is whether or not artistic creativity is predominantly a product of reason (the head) or emotion (the heart). As also might be expected, I make use of Plato’s classic Ion and Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” to provide a foundation for the discussion.

Since I teach this class every spring, I am always looking at new ways to present the material-both to improve the class and to fend off the dullness that can come from the seemingly eternal recurrence of teaching the same class. This year I was fortunate to find an interesting addition to the discussion albeit one from the past. To be specific, I ran across the story of Patience Worth in the Smithsonian magazine.

Patience Worth was an author who was very active between 1913 and 1937. She wrote books, such as The Sorry Tale,  and poetry.  She was lauded during her time. Or, to be more accurate, about three centuries after her time. After all, Miss Worth apparently died in an Indian raid  on Nantucket Island in the 1600s.  Worth apparently managed to pull of this remarkable literary feat by  communicating through Pearl Curran, a seemingly otherwise normal St. Louis housewife. While Miss Worth was remarkably successful, having the dead speaking through the living was not all that uncommon during the early 1900s: spiritualism was all the rage and mediums could check up on the dead almost as easily as people check their friends’ Facebook statuses today. What was unusual about Miss Worth is, of course, her success as an author.

While many people took the spiritual explanation at face value, some people were more critical and sought alternative explanations for this (alleged) phenomena. One explanation put forth was the idea of multiple personalities, namely that Patience Worth was merely one of Curran’s personalities and that this personality possessed the creative imagination that Curran alleged lacked.

Interestingly, this explanation fits rather nicely with what Plato says in the Ion:

When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem.

While Plato does not explicitly claim that Ion has multiple personality disorder, what he describes does seem somewhat similar (perhaps with some past life regression thrown in for good measure). Given that authors routinely create different sorts of characters in their works, the idea that they are tapping into multiple personalities in their own mind is not wildly implausible and it seems even more plausible when actors take on such roles (as Aristotle argued, actors do seem to be out of their right minds).

Of course, the multiple personality hypothesis does have some weak points as theory of creativity. After all, having numerous personalities does not explain why any one of them would be creative and the basic question of the origin of creativity would seem unanswered.

Interestingly enough, the noted critic Walter Prince (who, like Harry Houdini, often exposed fake mediums) concluded that Curran lacked the knowledge and ability to produce the works in question and concluded, after a lengthy investigation, that “some cause” had to be operating through Curran.

Assuming that Prince had not been duped, his basic approach seems reasonable: if Curran lacked the ability to produce the writing she was producing, then there had to be some other cause. While the idea that a dead woman was speaking through Curran seems to be, to say the least, far-fetched, it is no crazier than the explanation put forth by Plato in the Ion: “And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. ” As Plato saw it, it is the muses who speak through the poets and their artistic creativity is not actually their own, but rather that of the gods. This is a bit more dramatic than channeling a dead human, but the idea that there is a supernatural cause behind artistic creativity is common to both.

It is, as an aside, interesting to note that Plato did not ascribe philosophical creativity or ability to such divine possessions. Of course, he did seem to hold that philosophical understanding was acquired by somehow communing with the forms while one is between lives (that is, dead). As such, Plato does consistently ascribe supernatural foundations to both artistry and philosophy. Not surprisingly, he does regard the philosophic as vastly superior (as he argues in Book X of the Republic).

Getting back to the main issue, the medium hypothesis for creativity (and Plato’s Muse hypothesis) mainly serves to push the question back. After all, if ordinary Curran’s creativity is explained in terms of Worth’s creativity (or a poet’s creativity is explained in terms of the Muses), then the foundation of Worth’s creativity (and the Muses’ creativity) would still be in need of explanation. This, supernaturally enough, creates the threat of an infinite regress in which any agent of creativity must in turn have its creativity explained. While such a regress can be stopped, it must be stopped in a principled manner-that is, a plausible and adequately defended foundation of creativity must be reached. In the case of the Worth hypothesis, Curran’sc creativity is accounted for, but not Worth’s.  As such, the medium and Muse hypotheses seem to be incomplete. I do not, unfortunately, have the completion on hand.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Patience Worth is that Curran simply made her up. After all, this explanation fits rather nicely with Hume’s discussion of miracles and it seems much more probably that Curran was fabricating rather than channeling. After all, it is well established that people fabricate and not well established that the dead continue to exist and can be channeled to write books. This explanation does not, however, help at all to explain creativity-but it does give an excellent example of double creativity: an author who creates another author to create her works.

Perhaps I will solve this problem next year. Or next life.

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  1. Edgar Cayce, the psychic, I believe said, everything in the past, the present & the future is all there (in universe) for us to read – but, almost all of us humans, have not developed the capability to do so. He, of course, had some of those capabilities. Therefore, it is not beyound truism, that infact, Curran was a medium or Muse for Miss Worth’s creativity.

    Creative people empirically, have shown some “madness, manic and other odd” personal behaviours, than the “norm” – & that “philosophically” delivers aesthetic pleasure.

    The Impressionist painter Van Gogh is known for his “emotional” works (from the heart) but his productivity at the height of his short career is extraordinary – he could only have been manic, his brains working in overload (from the head) and producing thousands of aesthetic works.

    Creative Beauty is often created by the “abnormal” persons

  2. I’m curious to whether you’ve heard of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.
    He created for himself dozens of other personalities, and each one wrote in a different tone, theme and even language.

  3. I think that with multiple personalities that a clear distinguishing line between:

    persons a person can become,
    even if that person has becomes enraptured by the person they become. (kinda like forgetting who you are)

    and a Person (or body) for whom there are two distinct and often contradictory persons who can act pseudo-independentaly of each other.

    I’m not sure if that kinda feeds into the over all posing of the question, but in the first case the notion of creativity in itself has become so overwhelming that in exteriencing it the person has or feels something that could be considered a property of art. In some sense one could intuit that the person that the person becomes is a work of art in its own right, and that the process of writing a book being a product of the person created is in fact a facit of the actual work of art. The melody to the timing so to speak,

    Phew that was a long paragraph.

    In the second case the difference is one of degree of separation, the first person not only forgets herself but does not conciously or otherwise initiate the process of ‘being the second personality’

    To me this doesn’t necessarily imply the person (Curran) isn’t the author, but rather, that the process that created the second person (worth) – that is Curran’s creativity – wasn’t initated by Curran, and that the results of an unconcious and uncontrolled burst of creativity resulted in a work of art, of which one element was writing a book, the rest being the person herself.

    the extension to this (and I do not think unreasonable) is that the process of creativity can in itself act automously which accords with the notion of Muses.

    One would then say that multiple personalities could equally be applied to creativity itself, but the defining difference between self (as its usually conceived) and the other ones is a question of temporality- the temporaryness of the agent is the key here.

    So, as an artist develops and allows the so-called creativity to act of its own accord it becomes more stable, but without a label or name the creativity ‘personality’ is confounded with the person, with a label like a name creativity becomes a focus for itself (like conciousness between awareness of awareness) but appears contradictory due to the common notion of a singular self.

    To sum it up, it may be the only real distinction that can be made is that the art is the personality and not just the book.

    What do you think of that?

  4. One book I have always wanted to read on Aesthetics, though I have never found a copy, is Sextus Empiricus’s Against the Musicians. It’s such a great title, if nothing else, a sort of Third Critique after Against the Logicians and Against the Physicists. I’m not sure of there would be any relation between that and Ion’s performances.

  5. Interesting post. I’m currently writing an essay about Plato and the soul, so this is mildly relevant! I am new to your blog but I like it so have just subscribed to the RSS feed and will endeavour to stay in touch via FB and Twitter. Please check out my new philosophy blog if you get a chance! Thanks, and best wishes, Steven

  6. really interesting post. I think Anselm Franke wrote something about art and medium but I can’t find it. A very different teaching perspective would be to engage with neuroaesthetics – can neuroscience explain creativity? It might be a good debate to prompt reflection about the nature of creativity… There is a really good debate on the subject that you and you students can watch here:

    i hope it helps!

  7. Kalaeth,

    Interesting-that would seem to mesh nicely with Plato’s view that artists are out of their minds.

    To a lesser extent, all writers of fiction probably do that when they create their characters. Actors, too.

  8. Pod,

    Leibniz had the view that each monad reflected all the other monads, so one could (in theory) read the whole universe from one’s own mental contents. Perhaps that is how it works.

    Some thinkers also take the past, present and future to be equally real (for some, that is how God knows all that shall be-or at least what shall be from our perspective). If so, access to other times might be possible.

  9. C,

    That is an interesting take on the matter.

  10. haha, interesting… debatable… nonsense? Is usually what springs to mind when academics use the word interesting!

  11. Hah, I am clearly not paying attention. My overall point fr what you were saying is that given the ability of creativity to incorporate notions you are exposed too rather than simply things you consciously know it doesn’t seem like the notion she ‘can’t, write the book because she lacks the skills.

    The upstairs point about the personalities was simply to suggest that there are different variants of the notion of multiple personalities, some of which could potentially accommodate (accepting exposure as being part of being creative) the kind of thing that would look like a ghost in ones body.

    Personally I think it would be better if there was a ghost, it would be a great deal more interesting to be possessed by the ghost of Bach.

  12. *The notion she couldn’t- as a weak argument’

    This is what happens when you post things while Ill, it all becomes mangled. I’ll never learn. Although it does seem to be the only time I do post on the philosophers blog.

  13. ‘it seems much more probable that Curran was fabricating rather than channeling’.

    Not if you read the full account, surely (see for instance Stephen E Braude’s Immortal Remains). There are limits to what even the most gifted con-artist can ‘make up’. The Worth character was vastly different from Curran, with a quick wit, strong opinions and a deep sensibility that Curran never showed the slightest sign of in her normal (non-trance) state, never mind the literary creativity and the ability to dictate at rapid speed without pausing to think.

    Glad to see this extraordinary case getting an airing on your excellent blog, but the appeal to Hume – as so often in these debates – is a lazy evasion.

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