Collaboration, friendship, inspiration, loss, love and connection. These themes filter through many artworks in the NGV Collection. In this essay, we discover that, for some, a muse can come from unexpected places and consider the essential role of emotion, closeness and truth in the creative process.
The first time I met Professor Adam Zeman was in his office at the University of Exeter, England. The small room was a cave of bookshelves and the table seemed to barely be holding up under foot-high stacks of papers. I was hoping to persuade him to become the supervisor for my creative writing PhD. His area of expertise was cognitive and behavioural neurology, but he also had a passion for the arts and was the author of Consciousness: A User’s Guide. I doubted I would succeed. After we sat down, he told me he had just received several thousand emails in response to a paper on Aphantasia, a mysterious disorder involving a complete loss of visual imagination. ‘My cup is full,’ he added.
After about twenty minutes of conversation I noticed a postcard pinned on the wall behind his desk. It depicted a painting by Rembrandt, Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, c. 1654–56. It is thought to depict the woman who entered his house as a servant and became his partner (they never married) and perhaps his muse. Hendrickje Stoffels was sitting in a chair looking back at me, as if I was no stranger to her. Adam also contemplated the card and remarked that it was one of his favourite paintings. It was as if, for a moment, in this triangle, no-one was a stranger. I asked Adam, ‘What does it make you feel?’
He looked at the painting and then at me, his face suddenly soft with being moved, and answered: ‘Her lips are slightly parted, as if about to speak. She’s so alive and yet she’s dead.’ His eyes were a little moist yet neither of us broke the eye contact, and while we continued to simply look, something seemed to be becoming clear, as if truth itself was now ‘feelable’.
After that, the conversation took on a different tone and depth, and our dialogue has continued ever since. It still seems remarkable to me that two strangers looking at the same painting could meet in this way – as if for a moment they’d experienced the world through one and the same pair of eyes.
My poem Meeting is from my current novel.
Eyes find eyes,
Yours – a forest pool lit by evening sun.
Light filters through debris of leaves, Suddenly the waters clear,
Light reaches further,
The pool’s deeper than I thought.
And I can see you there,
Searching for words,
As if you’re free-diving,
Stirring up silt, which hangs for moments
like silver curtains over your eyes. I wait for you to come back.
At last your lips part,
You want to speak
But your eyes well up
Whatever you found down there, Slips back in, making a little wave.
Your eyes bathe in feeling,
A tear pools in the bottom lid, stays there.
You don’t look away, not even for a moment,
Your eyes, faithful to what is moving, And yet still holding mine, which are moist too,
As I see all the way to the bottomless.
This essay started out as an enquiry into the role my friends, or ‘muses’, in the writing of my current novel and my previous one, Rembrandt’s Mirror (2015). Many great works of art are of course inspired by relationships, be they intellectual, romantic or friendly. The more I considered the question, the more I realised that I am inspired by conversations with a couple of friends and that those conversations have something in common: They are allowed to hop from topic to topic, they get deeply personal, and they are quite unpredictable. My process seems to be that afterwards, often the next morning, I write, while the experience still resonates in my body and psyche, folding it into my writing at the time, like seeds to be germinated by the reader’s attention.
Let’s look a little more closely at what is at work between me and my muse when we converse or gaze at each other in silence. The experience reminds me of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s (1889–1976) notion of ‘presencing’, or in German ‘anwesen sein’, which means being fully present both mentally and physically. I will use ‘presencing’, to describe an experiential state of being that leads to insights. These ‘insights’, can involve noticing tiny details, such as the skin around the skin around the eye I believe that a close connection is a pre-requisite, for fleeting experiences to become a door to existential truths. I liken this to the way Monet’s faithful recording of the appearance of a haystack at sunset in frosty weather reveals something about the world beyond that particular haystack in the winter of 1890.
This ‘presencing’ of truth which occurs in open-hearted dialogue or in nature is revived when we enter a conversation with the resulting work of art. It is the work that then takes on the role of an attuned dialogue partner.I will now describe in a little more detail the two aspects that are key to my writing process: the loss of detachment and the need to access meaning as experience.
A loss of detachment
In the autumn of 1885, Van Gogh visited the newly opened Rijksmuseum with his friend Anton Kerssemakers. Van Gogh told his friend to go ahead and visit the rest of the museum so he could remain with Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca (formerly known as The Jewish Bride), c. 1665 – c. 1669. When Kerssemakers returned, Van Gogh told him, ‘Would you believe it – and I honestly mean what I say – I should be happy to give 10 years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food’. 1Van Gogh’s remark to friend Anton Kerssemakers; as cited in ‘De Amsterdammer, Weekblad voor Nederland’, 14 April 1912, p. 6; as quoted in Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, Amsterdam University Press, 1997, p. 155.
The anecdote illustrates the power of a completed work of art. But where and how does the process start? In Greek mythology muses are the gods and goddesses which provide inspiration to us mortals. They are considered the source of knowledge, embodied in literature, science and the arts.
According to the Oxford dictionary a muse is ‘a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist’. I certainly draw on people. For example, the artwork and philosophy of one of the main protagonists in my current novel, The Generosity of Darkness, is inspired by conversations with the ceramic sculptor Tony Lattimer and the overall theme of my novel has emerged in my conversations with Adam Zeman. What is it then about these conversations that has proved inspiring? For one thing, emotion is not only welcome, we treat it as a homing beacon. If eyes glisten, the throat becomes a little choked or it gets harder to find words then we know we’re getting close to something that matters and we move towards it. And this yields inspiring finds. Or in the words of the main character in Stephen King’s 1982 novel The Body:
The most important things are the hardest to say. … The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure…
Experiencing the personal and the deeply private is a way to articulating a truth that the reader can relate to. So let me describe a particular occasion:
Adam and I were speaking about grief. I touched on a break-up I experienced decades ago. Soon it became difficult for me to find words let alone speak them. What was stopping me in my tracks was not the memory of breaking up but a recollection of my boyfriend’s presence. So vivid I almost could have touched him.
I later wrote the poem The heaviness of those who love completely. Seeing that I was struggling to speak, Adam said, ‘Sadness can slow you to a halt.’ Then he added that a particular piece of music, one of the Rückert-Lieder by composer Gustav Mahler, always moved him to tears, especially the version recorded by Janet Baker in 1988. I suggested he play it. He hesitated for a moment, then googled it and pressed play. I watched him out of the corners of my eyes. He had sunk deeper into his chair as if his body had lost all aliveness. His gaze was empty as if all of him was engaged inwards. Janet Baker sang in German:
I am dead to the world’s tumult, And I rest in a quiet realm! I live alone in my heaven, In my love and in my song!
I realised that our griefs were not precisely the same but there was something they had in common. I could tell because the subject of our conversation – grief – acquired a presence in the room. It was like the difference between talking about apples and seeing a particular apple on the table in front of you.
Adam’s body still looked as if his attention was elsewhere, trained on an unreachable infinity. When the music stopped and our eyes met, it seemed as if I could see that part of him that had reached the infinity, but my very human friend was also looking back at me, still with emotion in his eyes. It was as if we’d both tasted the same apple.
I realised in that moment, in another part of my brain, that I was experiencing the central theme of my novel: our inevitable mortality and separateness and yet the possibility of reunion with what is right here.
Adam wrote later, ‘It is only through form (a sunset, a horizon, a loved one’s gaze or body) that we glimpse the eternally beguiling but unattainable possibilities of formlessness – the silence and the ripeness beyond the tangible or visible…’ Instead of being detached observers, through a process of ‘presencing’, we came to know something from the heart of the experience. So what is the nature of this experiential truth and how can we touch it?
In 1885, Van Gogh, wrote in a letter to his brother Theo: ‘Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. It is with justice that they call Rembrandt — [a] magician.’ 2Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh [letter 534], on or about 10 October 1885, in Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten & Nienke Bakker (eds), Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute, Amsterdam, 2009, http://vangoghletters.org/en/let534, accessed 11 October 2019.
The things-for-which-there-are-no-words remain hidden when approached with conceptual thought. They need to be experienced to be known. The currency of this experience, as we have seen, is deeply personal, but in allowing it we can touch on truth, perhaps even the truth.
The conversation about grief I described suggests that in emotionally engaged dialogue some kind of dynamic is at play that allows us to feel more fully, more presently, than if we were contemplating grief in our own mind alone.
By definition, dialogue involves at least two partners, and it involves a ‘showing up’ – an awareness of how I am in that moment of dialogue. Sad, happy, grumpy, aloof, scattered or tired. It does not matter which. What matters is authenticity; allowing the heaviness of my eyelids or the tensing of my jaw to be there, welcoming reality as it is.
In open-hearted dialogue, I don’t look at the content of my experience – for example sadness – the way I would look at a tree from across the road. Rather, I sit in the tree, hearing the leaves rustle, feeling the bark under my fingers and the slight swaying of the branch I’m sitting on.
The nature of this experience reminds me of Heidegger’s fundamental point that being is always being here or being-in-the-world. I believe there is an aspect to our practice of dialogue that supports an awareness of experience in the body as opposed to resorting to concepts that bypass this felt experiencing. One contributing factor to being present in this way is active mirroring – through empathy but also through body language.
In fact, the two are connected. Neuroscientists have identified mirror neurons as being instrumental in not only reading the emotions and movements of others but allowing us to feel them as if they were our own. So, if you see someone hammering in a nail, some of the same neurons are discharged as if you are hammering in a nail yourself. The same is true for facial expressions and body language. Mirror neurons mean that we really do have a pretty accurate sense of how someone else is feeling and we can feel with them. This leads to both a loss of detachment – a virtue in my book – and deeper understanding.
This makes it possible for a shared sense of ‘being here’ to emerge. This is not a static state but a dynamic process where the dialogue partners are engaged in subtle feedback loops of reciprocal mirroring. I believe the looped and coupled nature of emotionally connected dialogue results in an ever-clearer sense of what is being explored. It is almost as if truth is being distilled between two people. 3Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, World and Body Together Again, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008.
There might be an explanation for this. Andy Clark, a philosopher and proponent of ‘the extended mind’ hypothesis, describes a process where an agent (me, the writer) and an external structure (my notebook or my friend) become part of the same cognitive process. He describes a coupling between the two in such a manner that the external structure reflects back to the agent the results of her internal processes. He likens the process to a turbo-driven automobile engine:
The turbocharger uses exhaust flow from the engine to spin a turbine that spins an air pump that compresses the air flowing into the engine. The compression squeezes more air into each cylinder; allowing more fuel to be combined, leading to more powerful explosions (that drive the engine that creates the exhaust flow that powers the turbo).
So, the emotionally engaged dialogue is enhancing the cognitive engine, thereby facilitating cognitive leaps and insights. The dialogue is not about the idea of sadness, or pre-existing knowledge of sadness, but our personal in-the-moment experience of it. The more specific, the more personal the experience, then the more it can reveal. It is that which I try to capture in my writing.
Communion with art. Can a work of art take on the role of dialogue partner? Like Van Gogh, I too have wanted to spend a long time in front of Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca. Each time I’ve seen it, the woman has appeared to have a differed expression: sad, moved, inwards, contemplative, warm, joyful. How is this possible?
As we’ve seen, mirror neurons can help us get quite an accurate sense of how someone feels, but the face of the woman is painted in broad brushstrokes, which allow her expression to be interpreted in different ways.
Perception itself relies on the brain to fill in the blanks as it could never assemble the combined input from all the senses into a coherent reality in real-time. So, according to neuroscientific research, what we see of the world is the mind’s best guess of reality. It seems that Rembrandt too was aware of how the mechanics of perception could be exploited. His pupil Samuel Van Hoogstraten wrote in 1678 in his book on painting:
Do not to concern yourselves too much with small details of shadows. […] In the same way that a man, catching sight of his friend from a distance or meeting him in twilight, straight away sees his appearance in his mind and recognizes him, so a rough sketch can often create such a great impression on beholders that they can see more in it than is actually there. 4Samuel Van Hoogstraten, Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst; anders de zichtbaere werelt. Rotterdam, 1678 p. 27.
In the twentieth century, art historian Ernst Gombrich coined the term ‘the beholder’s share’ to describe what we contribute to the experience of a work of art. It is as if we and the work of art become partners in ‘presencing’. A dynamic dialogue unfolds between what I see in the painting, for example the expression on the woman’s face, and this in turn affects my emotions and where my eyes travel next, which affects what I see, and so on. It is similar to the reiterative mirroring in an intimate dialogue. The same process occurs when we read novels or watch a Shakespeare play. Especially with Shakespeare, a vast number of interpretations is not only possible but sustained over the duration of the play through the use of ambiguity, metaphor and imagery.
As in a human dialogue we might find something of ourselves mirrored, but what about the truth? The physicist Henri Bortoft, following in Goethe’s footsteps, believed that imagination can become an organ of perception: ‘I get the sense that when you do it you are moving in another space, an imaginal realm. It is a movement. And it seems more real than the outer world.’ 5Henri Bortoft interviewed by Claus Otto Scharmer, Presencing Institute, London, 14 July 1999.
Bortoft believed that through very exact sensorial imagination, an underlying unity – reality beyond the distinction between subject and object – can be experienced.
Some things are hidden when regarded with detachment. Those things, in order to be revealed, require a loss of detachment, they can only be seen from within the experience.
The change in title for the work by Rembrandt, from The Jewish Bride to Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, is important because there is evidence that the painting is based on the real relationship of the two sitters. Rembrandt was rarely a detached observer, nor was he interested in how men or women should look. For example, he recorded faithfully the indentations on a woman’s calves from wearing garters or, in this case, the love of this particular couple. There is no other painting like it. The portrayal of the man’s hand on the woman’s chest and the way her hand welcomes it, is bold and original. It is the pose, the expressions, the colours and so much more besides that reveals that-for-which-there-are-no-words to anyone willing to look at it, and wait, and feel.
This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 19 Nov–Dec 2019.
Van Gogh’s remark to friend Anton Kerssemakers; as cited in ‘De Amsterdammer, Weekblad voor Nederland’, 14 April 1912, p. 6; as quoted in Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, Amsterdam University Press, 1997, p. 155.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh [letter 534], on or about 10 October 1885, in Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten & Nienke Bakker (eds), Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute, Amsterdam, 2009, http://vangoghletters.org/en/let534, accessed 11 October 2019.
Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, World and Body Together Again, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008.
Samuel Van Hoogstraten, Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst; anders de zichtbaere werelt. Rotterdam, 1678 p. 27.
Henri Bortoft interviewed by Claus Otto Scharmer, Presencing Institute, London, 14 July 1999.