Condensed from Manas (30:2) January 12, 1977
The Italian historian, Franco Venture, pointed out that old ideas are not necessarily backward-tending or retarding in effect. Reviving them may be part of what is needed in the present -- "a fruitful attempt to preserve the most precious aspects of the past in order to transmit them to the future." We have dozens of examples of such efforts before us today -- practical ones in the reform of agriculture, scholarly ones in cultural and philosophical anthropology.
But not all the neglected ideas are "old." There are
also ideas which men cherish as they might a secret love, seldom
speaking of them openly, yet gaining from them immeasurable nourishment.
We might call these "back of the head" ideas. It seems
possible that, for some men at least, great effort and the capacity
for vision are sustained by these usually hidden conceptions,
with the result that, when we hear or read something extraordinarily
good, there is no way to find out where it comes from, or what
may have inspired it. In a fact-worshipping age no one wishing
to enjoy the good opinion of his colleagues is likely to disclose
the unacceptable sources of his faith. A man who has seen a unicorn
at dusk will not report it to an assemblage of zoologists, nor
is a physicist who recognizes a principle of discovery in the
insight of some mystic likely to credit this source in his footnotes
Yet now and then there are leaks in this reserve. A scientist of assured eminence may feel emboldened to make some curious admissions, and if he is great he may not care at all what people say about him. Another side of the matter would be covered by the difference between the way an original and inventive man really thinks and what the popularizers and codifiers of "modern knowledge" make of him. If he occasionally reveals his back-of-the-head ideas, these will be omitted, one can be sure, in the watered-down textbooks. (There is hardly a better reason for the abolition of textbooks.)
One thinks, for example, of Newton's enduring interest in alchemy, in Boehme's writings, and in theology, almost never mentioned in properly cleaned-up accounts of how he devised the foundations of classical physics; or of William James's lifelong involvement in psychic research. Then there is Thomas Huxley's extraordinary contribution to his Essays on Some Controverted Questions (1892), in which this staunch champion of Darwinian evolution -- not above occasional nature-faking in behalf of man's supposed ape ancestry -- declared it "baseless and impertinent" to assert that, "amidst the myriads of worlds scattered through endless space, there can be no intelligence as much greater than man's as his is greater than the black beetle's." He also found it easy, he said, going from analogy of what is known, "to people the cosmos with entities, in ascending scale, until we reach something practically indistinguishable from omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience." The abstract logic of evolution doubtless prompted this back-of-the-head foray into polytheistic possibility, although at the same time Huxley remained convinced that "psychical phenomena are dependent on the physical." Darwin, too, has his back-of-the-head convictions. In 1864 he wrote to Alfred Wallace his agreement that the struggle between the races of man depends "entirely on intellectual and moral qualities."
Einstein was one of the few who, when asked, were willing to speak openly of their back-of-the-head experiences, although, for him, there seemed little difference between these and the work of his life. His son-in-law, Dmitri Marianoff, tells about a night in Berlin, after other members of the household had retired, when, as the two sat quietly together, he felt able to ask the physicist a question. Marianoff relates in Einstein -- An Intimate Study of a Great Man (Doubleday, 1944):
I had often seen him in abstract meditation, often physically weary, but never had I felt so much peace about him as at that moment. The room was filled with stillness.
"How is it, Albert, that you arrived at your theory?"
"In vision," he answered.
He said that one night he had gone to bed with a discouragement of such black depths that no argument would pierce it. "When one's thought falls into despair, nothing serves him any longer, not his hours of work, not his past successes -- nothing. All reassurance is gone. It is finished, I told myself, it is useless. There are no results. I must give it up."
Then this happened. With infinite precision the universe, with its underlying unity of size, structure, distance, time, space, slowly fell piece by piece, like a monolithic picture puzzle, into place in Albert Einstein's mind. Suddenly clear, like a giant die that made an indelible impress, a huge map of the universe outlined itself in one clarified vision.
And that is when peace came, and that is when conviction came, and with these things came an almighty calm that nothing could ever shake again, not while Albert Einstein lives. . .
Marianoff reports that on another occasion Einstein said to him -- "the exact phrasing of the words is lost but the fact in them was this -- that when the truths of cosmic law and order became the inhabitants of his mind and took full possession they brought with them a tremendous calm and a divine balance, and he was never to know restlessness and impatience again, ever." It seems fitting to recall here what Dr. Einstein told Niccolo Tucci,, who interviewed him for the New Yorker (November 22, 1948). Learning that the physicist spent an hour each evening reading aloud in Sophocles, Thucydides, and Aeschylus, Tucci remarked, "So you too, Herr Professor, have gone back to the Greeks?" Einstein replied:
"But I have never gone away from them. How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science."
The highest achievement of Friedrich Kekule, whose formulation in 1865 of the "ring" theory of the constitution of benzene has been called the "most brilliant piece of prediction to be found in the whole range of organic chemistry," grew out of what was plainly a back-of-the-head inspiration -- a dream. The work on which, at the end of the nineteenth century, three fourths of all modern organic chemistry was said to depend, was born from a "flash" of inspiration which came to Kekule during a bus ride while visiting London. As he tells it:
I fell into a reverie, and lo! the atoms were gamboling before my eyes! Whenever, hitherto, these diminutive beings had appeared to me, they had always been in motion, but up to that time, I had never been able to discover the nature of that motion. Now, however, I saw how, frequency, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of three or even four of the smaller, whilst the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain . . .
That night Kekule sketched out his dream of the atoms. When done
he had evolved a system of formulas to represent the structure
of organic compounds. He had dreamed the architecture of the benzene
molecule. Later, in Ghent, he dreamed of chains of atoms in snake-like
whirls. He saw one of the "snakes" bite its own tail;
awaking, he developed what chemists now call the benzene ring.
(That sterling source of reliable information, the Encyclopaedia
Britannica ,lists all the tributes we have
quoted here, but makes no mention of Kekule's dreams! )
In The Psychology of Science, A. H. Maslow suggests that an "exploration of the inner life of good scientists" would be a way of bringing together scientists, artists, "religious" persons, humanists, and all other serious people. He means by this to show how such individuals are linked by what we have termed "back of the head" ideas -- apparently transcendent sources of inspiration:
This is what nonscientists don't know, and this is what scientists are too bashful to talk about publicly, at least until they grow old enough to become shameless. Science at its highest level is ultimately the organization of, the systematic pursuit of, and the enjoyment of wonder, awe, and mystery.
Inventors, when questioned, tell the same story. Years ago, C.
G. Suits, then head of General Electric's research division, contributed
to American Magazine (December, 1945)an article
on how inventors get their ideas. "Hard work," he said,
"invariably precedes the flash of inspiration." But
an attempt to go behind this explanation usually discloses mythic
dimensions. One engineer proposed that "hunches" leading
to discovery scurry around in the brain like birds in a cage.
When one of them sees an opening into the conscious mind -- an
exit, you could say, from the back part of the head, unbarred
by preconception -- it flutters out and the inventor has an "inspiration."
Another engineer "insists that intuition is awareness of
Absolute Truth -- a sort of spiritual receiving set that permits
the owner to tune in broadcasts of universal knowledge."
Still another spoke of a "guardian angel" that whispers
advice and prevents mistakes, and a chemist had "the impression
that unseen hands are guiding his operations."
If, in the course of an hour or two, it is possible to gather together these several and sometimes impressive instances of the looming presence of back-of-the-head influences -- having, of course, some idea of where to look for them -- what might result from devoting a year to such research? But if one were to do it, there might be great temptation to offer a "theory" about them, and the chances are we are by no means ready for anything like that. Precocious theory exercises a sterilizing effect, since, seeking acceptability, the theorizer will often avoid hypothesizing the full dimensions of what he proposes to explain.
The evidence of back-of-the-head ideas, one might say, is still -- and properly -- in its mythic stage. This is not reductive judgment but simply an evaluation of the cultural status quo. Myths give expression to realities we know exist but know better than to attempt to define. Myths are half-way houses between our strongest intuitive feelings and what we are able to say we "know" and to speak of with some precision.
Myths are also utopian goals we can neither realize, here and now, nor do without. The myth is back-of-the-head cultural vision or inspiration, the nourishment of the collective dream of the Good. Who are the actors in myths? Well, they are men, heroes, and gods -- in that ascending order. A civilization which fails to recognize the order as real, which shuts out myth, loses its inspiration and abandons itself to the denials and literalism with which we are so tiresomely familiar. As we noted earlier, there is no mention of Kekule's vision -- from which such extraordinary achievements resulted -- in the Britannica. Such primary sources are not to be taken seriously. The capacity of people actually to live in the world known to the back of their heads is totally ignored by the learned men of our society. That world does not exist for them, so they make a desert of culture.
We are thinking -- for the source of back-of-the-head ideas -- of a universe of life and action, not one merely of literary discourse. It is a meta-physical place, yet not without terrain, topography, and even compass-points. Those who visit there return to our earth with dual citizenship, making the two worlds overlap. The continuities of the back-of-the-head world -- call it the mythic world, to guard against further definition -- are not the same as the ones we rely on here; indeed, they may be conceived of as opposite in character. In An Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer speaks of this difference:
To mythical and religious feeling nature becomes one great society, the society of life. Man is not endowed with outstanding rank in this society. He is a part of it but he is in no respect higher than any other member. Life possesses the same religious dignity in its humblest and in its highest forms. . . . we find the same principle -- that of the solidarity and unbroken unity of life -- if we pass from space to time. It holds not only in the order of simultaneity but also in the order of succession. The generations of men form a unique and uninterrupted chain. The former stages of life are preserved by reincarnation. . . .
Many mythical tales are concerned with the origin of death. The conception that man is mortal, by his nature and essence, seems to be entirely alien to mythical and primitive religious thought. In this regard there is a striking difference between the mythical belief in immortality and all the later forms of a pure philosophical belief. If we read Plato's Phaedo we feel the whole effort of philosophical thought to give clear and irrefutable proof of the immortality of the human soul. In mythical thought the case is quite different. Here the burden of proof always lies on the opposite side. If anything is in need of proof it is not the fact of immortality but the fact of death. And myth and primitive religion never admit these proofs. They emphatically deny the very possibility of death. In a certain sense the whole of mythical thought may be interpreted as a constant and obstinate negation of the phenomenon of death. By virtue of this conviction of the unbroken unity and continuity of life myth has to clear away this phenomenon. Primitive religion is perhaps the strongest and most energetic affirmation of life that we find in human culture.
The reference to Plato is of particular interest. Plato, you could
say, moved around deliberately in his head -- from front to back
and back to front -- for his several and various purposes. Yet
Plato has wheels within wheels. The Republic is
itself a myth. As Northrop Frye has said, "Socrates in
the Republic is not concerned about setting
up his ideal state anywhere: what he is concerned about is the
analogy between his ideal state and the structure of a wise man's
mind, with its reason, will, and desire corresponding to the philosopher-king,
soldiers, and artisans of the political myth." Plato's real
Utopia "is an individual goal, of which the disciplined society
is an allegory."
Plato is one of those few who advocate actually living, but as an individual, in the utopian world of vision. At the end of Book Nine in the Republic, when Glaucon says that the ideal city of their dialogue can be found "nowhere on earth," Plato has Socrates declare, in behalf of the true philosopher:
Well, said I, perhaps there is a pattern of it laid up in heaven for him who wishes to contemplate it and so beholding to constitute himself its citizen. But it makes no difference whether it exists now or ever will come into being.