Tag Archives: Edgar Allan Poe

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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