Tuesday, June 14, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 6

Inspiration from John Henry Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
When I was studying theology, one of the greatest and subtlest of minds I came across was that of John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) who had both a breadth and depth of erudition.  This fact always strikes me as surprising in any scholar as it is the "rara avis" or very "rare bird" that manages to have both.  If my memory serves me well at all, scholars with a breadth of erudition, according to Newman, were mostly the historical types - the conservators of the past - whilst those with a depth of erudition were the minds touched with a genius for discovery.  You needed both, according to the learned Cardinal.  Newman himself, as I've said was the rara avis who was gifted with both.  Added to that, he wrote in the most angelic of English prose and can be counted the foremost English stylist of Victorian times.  One of things one picks up from reading anything by the learned Cardinal is his desire to treat of any question in the most comprehensive of ways possible.  His great book on the role and nature of university education  - The Idea of a University - cannot be surpassed, or at least with great difficulty and with a very broad and profound erudition.  In that book, he laid out a most comprehensive and liberal view of university education that embraced all subjects and, indeed, he argued that theology had a place on an equal footing amongst them on the curriculum.

What has such an introduction got to do with the wee book - Poiesis -I'm discussing, you may quite rightly ask?  Well, it seems to me that what Professor Levine is offering us in his theory and practice of Expressive Arts Therapy is a type of approach that would be appreciated by a mind such as Newman's were he to live today, namely the opposite to a reductionist mind.  I remember reading in Newman's Apologia, his defense of his religious convictions, that in anything he undertook, he sought to "bring out the whole of it," not just a part of the problem.  Newman's intellectual thrust was one, therefore, towards a holistic understanding of the phenomenon in question.  It seems to me that the likes of Professor Dawkins, while amazing and brilliant scholars in their own fields, are rather blinkered in that they fail in the task, or rather don't see at all that there is the task of bringing the "whole of it" into view.  Theirs is a limited, if scholarly and erudite position.  In short, I believe they are lacking in an overall vision, preferring instead an in-depth view of reality.  The error they make is to begin to generalise on the whole of reality from the limited view of their specialism.  Indeed, to my mind, their arguments about whether God exists or not, or indeed whether X or Y proposition is the correct or wrong one are in this sense irrelevant as they literally have not stood far enough back to see the greater picture as it were.

Turning to Sociology

As one trained and educated in the liberal arts and in the humanities, I find the limited vision of certain - only certain, mind you - scientists quite stifling.  I find what they have to offer to be as unpalatable as eating sawdust.  Anyway, that's why I find the views of van Gennep, as expressed by Professor Levine, very liberating indeed.  That a scholarly sociologist could express such profound and holistic views as early as 1908 is refreshing - rather like opening an attic window on a stiflingly hot day.  We are so much more than an intellect.  We are wonderful, if flawed, creatures with an equally wonderful potential (our creativity in all its beauty and power) balanced with an infernal drive to self-destruction (the death-wish of Freud if you like!).  Let me return to that scholars's words as reported by Professor Levine:

Rites of passage accomplish personal and social regeneration through symbolic death and re-birth.  In van Gennep's own words, "life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be re-born...the series of human transitions...is indeed a cosmic conception that relates the stages of human existence to those of plant and animal life and... joins them to the great rhythms of the universe."  Ultimately these rituals have not only a social significance but a cosmic and ontological one.  (Poiesis, p. 49)
Turning to Anthropology

It is wonderful, too, that Levine also looks to anthropology for further insights into the human condition, and for some theoretical base for his theory and practice of Expressive Arts Therapy.  He now turns to the work of the anthropologist Victor Witter Turner (1920 – 1983), a Scottish cultural anthropologist best known for his work on symbols, rituals and rites of passage. His work, along with that of Clifford Geertz and others, is often referred to as symbolic and interpretive anthropology.  Once again Turner was very taken with van Gennep's analysis of the role of transitions in riuals.

Victor Witter Turner
In this regard, Turner coined the term "liminality" to designate the state of being in a transitional phase or in a liminal phase in one's life.  Now, what is liminality?  In Professor Levine's words: "Liminality is a position of structural outsiderhood and inferiority.  To be liminal is to be vulnerable, without the protection of role or office.  At the same time, liminality implies potency, the capacity to become more than one has been.  The liminal person is "naked," as it were; he or she is without defenses yet has what Turner calls "the powers of the weak." (Op. cit., p. 49)

While liminality is about "outsiderhood" or "inferiority," it does not imply isolation as such words or concepts do in existentialist literature.  Even the whole community has to pass through the liminal stage according to our scholars:


In such a condition, they stand before each other divested of the masks emblematic of their social status.  They meet not as a series of individual "I's" but as an "essential We", a community characterized by the feeling of "humankindness," Turner calls this social condition, "communitas."
In this sense, rites of passage or rituals are renewing and regenerative of social life and, therefore, are inherently creative.  Now, it is within this phenomenon of liminality that all creativity as we know it in the arts find their seeds, as it were.  It is a seminal bed or seminary for the artistic life.  For Turner, then, the ritual process is an artistic one, essential for the continued vitality of social life, and in the twin realities of liminality and communitas he finds the basis of art.

Like all of life, suffering, of necessity, plays a leading part.  In our liminal state we are paining and suffering; we are vulnerable, poor and "naked" to use a metaphor; we are humbled and stripped of all masks and roles and "egos," dare I say it.  Turner argues that it is in this stripped and "naked" state, as it were, that we as individuals are capable of receiving wisdom (more a collective phenomenon I should imagine, rather than a personal gift), a deep knowledge that comes from an awareness of one's limitations and contingency.  I will finish with some words from Turner, again as expressed by Professor Levine:

"[L]iminality, marginality and structural inferiority are conditions in which are frequently generated myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems and works of art." ... They are capable of creating "root metaphors" or "conceptual archetypes" which can later be unpacked and serve as the basis for the formation of social structures.  These metaphors or archetypes are multivocal; they bring together body and spirit in a felt and imagined unity. (Ibid., p. 50)

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