“We are all mad here”. Inner Experience, Creative Intuition and Mysticism

By Sander Vloebergs

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” (Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland)

I ended the defense of my master thesis with this remarkable quote from Lewis’ masterpiece. So, in a sense it concluded my studies in Theology. Today, I continue the madness by exploring the twisted thoughts of artists, theologians and mystics – the best teachers imaginable. In this blog I will explore parallels between the artistic and mystical process by comparing Jacques Maritain’s ‘Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry’ and Hadewijch’s teachings, highlighting the complex relation between the intellect and the creative intuition, between the theologian’s insight and the artist’s madness.


The Creation of the Human Self

By Poetry, I mean, not the particular art which consists in writing verses, but a process both more general and more primary: that intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human Self which is a kind of divination (as realized in ancient times; the Latin vates was both a poet and a diviner). (Maritain, p. 3)

With these sentences, Jacques Maritain introduces his readers to the peculiar world of art making and poetic activity. Art is for him the active quest that leads into the depths of Nature which always conceals herself. This quest has something sacred. He correlates the search for the essence of Matter with the finding of the Human Self and with the divinization of men. The awareness of this correlation was discovered, he notes, by the modern artist who became aware of the Self of the artist.

Accordingly, the painter (who henceforth is simply nothing if he lacks poetic vision) sees deeper into Things, though in the dark of Things and of his own Self. He grasps enigmatically an aspect or element of the mystery of the universe of matter, in so far as this aspect or element is meant to fructify into a construction of lines or colors. And because subjectivity has become the very vehicle to penetrate into the objective world, what I thus looked for in visible Things must have the same kind of inner depth and inexhaustible potentialities for revelation as the Self of the painter. (p. 29)

There are, however, some interesting parallels to be drawn between Maritain’s modern artist and the medieval mystic Hadewijch. She as well discovered the human Self, not the egocentric one but the theocentric Imago Dei. Moreover, she relies on the same imagery of the abyss to express her quest to become the perfect human (Jesus Christ), which in Hadewijch is the essence of deification. To become human like Christ in the rough desert of human existence, is “to grow to being God with God” (seventh vision). This life in exile takes place in the temporal world, a world that is ravaged by pain and the experience of divine absence. In this world, Hadewijch has to transform herself into a divine vessel, incarnating the artistic inspiration and producing works of art, sacramental signs of the Love yet to come. Hadewijch reveals that only Love can transform; only by loving Love, recreation can take place. Maritain says something similar if we are allowed to replace Beauty by Love:

To produce in beauty the artist must be in love with beauty. Such undeviating love is a supra-artistic rule – a precondition, not sufficient as to the ways of making, yet necessary as to the vital animation to art – which is presupposed by all the rules of art. (p. 59)


Illuminating Intellect and Artistic Madness

Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. (Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland)  

I personally experienced the struggle between intellectual reason and artistic inspiration (forthcoming: The Visionary and the Visual). Maritain is a useful guide to explain this struggle in greater detail. According to Maritain, the artistic process takes place in the human intellect.It is not to be understood as endued by divine forces (like the Muses) but neither is it provoked by rational reason. How then understand the role and the nature of the intellect proposed by Maritain? This is how he puts it:

I want to emphasize, from the start, that the very words reason or intellect, when they are related to that spiritual energy which is poetry, must be understood in a much deeper and larger sense that is usual. The intellect, as well as the imagination, is at the core of poetry. But reason, or the intellect, is not merely logical reason; it involves an exceedingly more profound – and more obscure – life, which is revealed to us in proportion as we endeavor to penetrate the hidden recesses of poetic activity. (p. 4)

This proposed human intellect balancesbetween supra-rational/human processes (Plato’s Muses) and rational reflexivity (academicism). Nowadays, there is a tendency to fight against the forces of academicism and rational reasoning (for example the surrealist movement). Following this tendency that promotes creative intuition (situated at the unconscious level of the mind) one has the impression that the process of creating art has something of a madman’s project. In a sense, this is true.

In the mind of the poet, poetic knowledge arises in an unconscious or preconscious manner, and emerges into consciousness in a sometimes almost imperceptible though imperative and irrefragable way, through an impact both emotional and intellectual or through an unpredictable experiential insight which gives notice of its existence, but does not express it”. (p. 118)

This leads to the preconception of the artist as a poetic executor, acting without any consent and reflection.

Nevertheless, the poet’s nonsense (like the Mad Hatter’s) is not without reason, it elevates reason taking it to a deeper level. Maritain speaks of the Illuminating Intellect (Aristotle’s term) or intuitive reason, and appoints it as the source of inspiration. This intuitive reason is found “in the obscure and high regions which are near the center of the soul, and in which the intellect exercises its activity at the single root of the soul’s powers and conjointly with them”. (p. 63). This intellect is both intuitive and reflexive, covering all the capacities of the human mind. According to Maritain:  “no virtue of the intellect, even practical virtues, can genuinely develop in its own particular sphere without a more or less simultaneous development of reflectivity”. (65)

Thus a place is prepared in the highest part of the soul, in the primeval translucid night where intelligence stirs the images under the light of the Illuminating Intellect, from the separate Muse of Plato to descend into man, and dwell within him, and become a part of our spiritual organism. (p. 100)

Let me draw another important parallel: Maritain’s Illuminating Intellect comes very close to  Hadewijch’s Illuminated Intellect. These cover more or less the same existential human capacities, but Hadewijch is stressing more its given character. Hadewijch speaks in her poems about the madness of Love which drives her out of her mind, into the abyss, the divine embrace. Hadewijch nuances Maritain’s exclusive focus on the human involvement in the art process. Following the mystical tradition (mainly Willem of St. Thierry) the mystic is drawn into her essence: from the senses, into the mental faculties (memory, intellect and will), from the mental faculties into this point of existence where the complete human person stands before God. At this point divine inspiration can become incarnated art if one takes the risk to lose one’s mind – without losing one’s humanity – and become mad of Love (Richard of St. Victor). 

 “Have I gone mad? I’m afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are.” (Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland)