Humanising Language Teaching
The Shape of Intuition
Robert McNeer, Italy
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( Robert McNeer is an actor/director working in Apulia, Italy who has also worked in the field of teacher training, in particular, with Steiner School teachers. His article "Eternity's Sunrise" in an earlier issue of HLT described the nature of his artistic work with English teachers. The following article is a much shortened version of a speech on the theme of inspiration and intuition that he prepared for the English Week 2003-a yearly international conference of Steiner School English teachers held in Germany.)
Two classic texts come immediately to mind. One is the opening of "The Odyssey." The other, "Pinocchio."
I think the story of Pinocchio, like an alchemical text, encodes a transformation: the transformation of impulse into intuition, "Why did you do that?" "I don't know, I just did. It just happened, it was an impulsive act." Like a puppet pulled by strings.. On impulse, Pinocchio decides not to go to school—although having become familiar with the Italian school system, I must say in this case I can appreciate his decision—on impulse he decides to join the travelling players—well, that´s also a decision I can understand. But his impulse to join Lampwick and the bad boys to go live in Playland has disastrous, and foreseeable consequences. Pinocchio is ruled by impulse. He's hyperactive, he's overly kinesthetic he suffers from attention deficiency syndrome, in short, he's a bad element. He is consistently insensitive to the needs and intentions of others: everyone who tries to help him gets spurned at best, like Geppetto and the Blue Fairy, or, in the case of the talking cricket, smashed with a wooden hammer within minutes of his introduction to the story. But then, in the shark´s belly, something happens to him. In that moment of deep crisis, Pinocchio discovers the spark of empathy through which he truly perceives Geppetto, and through Geppetto, comes to know himself. Pinocchio has his first altruistic moment. To save his poor Geppetto he hatches the scheme of making the shark sneeze, expelling them both from that exile so that a friendly tuna can bring them home. This is the only moment where the story really moves me: when Pinocchio, in the belly of the beast, gets outside of his own needs and deeply feels those of another. He feels compassion. Pinocchio reaches out to the other, and finds himself: the puppet becomes a real boy. The shark- sneeze inspiration is not a mere impulse, but rather an intuitive action, which emanates from his deep feelings for Geppetto.
"Tell me, O muse, the man of many ways, who wandered many paths of exile after he sacked Troy's sacred citadel" For me the "Odyssey" is a very stimulating vantage point for looking at inspiration. The first western epic is a story of estrangement and disassociation. When the Cyclops asks him his name, Odysseus famously replies: "My name is Nobody." And that "Nobody," that decisive negation of his own identity, is the quintessence of the part he plays through the whole poem: In every single encounter he has with the other, Odysseus plays roles. I would say that he dresses up, were it not truer that he dresses down: he plays mendicants, beggars, humble sailors, cast-aways, escaped slaves. Odysseus loves to play, and he's drawn to the weak. The hero humbles himself, to learn that which he cannot learn as a hero. And this, I think, is the proper gesture for the artist seeking inspiration. Samuel Beckett said: "Ever tried, ever failed. Never mind. Try again. Fail better."
I would like to develop for a moment this idea of choosing to work on your weakness: on the strength of humility.
I once read an interview with the American poet Robert Bly, in which he spoke of Carl Jung. It seems Carl Jung, speaking to a group of psychiatrists in London in the '30s, hypothesized a circle of intelligence, around which he placed 4 cardinal points: intellect, of course, and opposed to that, feeling—feeling intelligence. The intuitive intelligence, which we're thinking about this week, and across from that, grasp of facts, or practical intelligence, which would be the kind which a good map-reader shows. Now some of us are good map-readers and some of us are bad map-readers, and I've noticed the good map-readers are usually married to the bad map-readers, I don't know why. And they usually choose to drive together, that's the incredible thing.
Well I find that very interesting, that it's not through our strength, but through our weakness, that we connect with others. And Bly provocatively takes it one step further: he suggests that the greatest poetry comes when the poet has the courage to work on his weakness, to work where he's not so sure of himself.
It is the intuitive intelligence which enjoys, above all, the drama of this meeting with the other: like Odysseus, the intuitive mind loves to improvise, because it loves the infinite game. The finite game is the game which ends when somebody wins; the infinite game is that which has no end, because it has no winner-- the player recognizes that "I am not generating this, I'm simply participating." Odysseus didn't write his story—it would have been very different had he been the author. But he's not the author, he's an actor, and like any good actor, he improvises with the material at hand, and does so with a certain gusto, perhaps because he recognizes that it´s a great story. Remember when Calypso offers him immortality. All he has to do is agree to stay with her on her island, and she'll see that he lives forever, and not just forever alive, but forever young. Odysseus refuses, and I think the reason he refuses is because he has not yet told his story. If he stays on that island, humanity will remember him, if at all, as just another Greek general at the Trojan War. He recognizes that immortality consists not in living forever, but in being remembered. His intuition recognizes this, and he is thereby spared the fate that a hasty intellectual intelligence would choose.
Intuition is the humble servant who prepares a space for the visit of the other, who readies the house for inspiration. And this happens all the time in theatre: what seems to be the problem is, in fact, the solution: but you have to change your thinking to recognize it - you have to think intuitively. The Balinese actor, Tapa Sudana, once said to me: "If you seek the truth, abandon your opinions." And this is what the actor looks for: a state of grace in which the action and the voice are balanced, poised lightly between contraries, like the cup of two hands, brimful of water-- at the same time an invitation, and a request - an invocation: "Tell me, O muse..." For me, this is the precious moment of grace which can receive inspiration. The artist tries to expand that moment of grace, like ripples on a pond, hopefully to embrace an entire lifetime.
How? With mindfulness. By paying careful attention to the apparently unimportant detail, paying heed to the spaces between and the spaces beyond the field of vision. I'm constantly reminding my students, when we do physical exercises, to pay less attention to the other bodies around them, and more to the spaces between the bodies, for it is in this space, in this air, that mind can be found. This is from "The Spell of the Sensuous," by anthropologist David Abrams:
"Nothing is more common to the diverse indigenous cultures of the earth than a recognition of the air, the wind, and the breath, as aspects of a singularly sacred power...of all that is ineffable, unknowable, yet undeniably real and efficacious….(W)e should not be surprised that many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or "mind," not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with the other animals and plants, the mountains and the clouds..."
But we non-indigenous plodders of concrete, drivers of cars and keepers of appointments on digital, watertight, shock-resistant fish-proof laptops—we have to find, and have found, other ways to walk in beauty, to open ourselves to this Mind.
Bed, bus and bath are the three Bs where inspiration notoriously strikes. A precious moment for me is the moment of waking up, when my sense of self is so scattered that it is open to other voices, or, more often, visions. Wallace Stevens writes: "Poetry must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully / Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow / Out of a storm we must endure all night..." That inspired moment on awakening is a very brief candle indeed, which disappears as soon as I recover a sense of my physical body. Exactly like a dream, it tends to evaporate in the telling. Bottom, in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, has a famous go at it when he wakes up in the enchanted forest outside the city walls, after having lived as an ass, lover to a fairy queen:
"I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was—and methought I had.. but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had...I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream, and it shall be called "Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom; and I shall sing it at the latter end of a play, before the Duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death."
It's interesting that he gives the job of turning his dream into art to another, to Peter Quince. I see something very subtle, and very powerful here. Bottom is for a moment aware that he has touched the unknowable, he has seen eternity: "it hath no bottom." It is the mirror of immortality in which this metaphysical clown sees his own mortal limits – "peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I will sing it at her death." Not by chance, his last word is death, and not by chance, it is not his death he wants to commemorate, but that of another. Remember this is an actor who felt that he could play all the parts alone: like Pinocchio, he didn't feel the need of the other. But here in this moment of epiphany, kissed by the muse, he recognizes his mortal limits. For the first time he sees his art, not as a means to serve himself, but as a means to serve the other. I think in his dream he's gained some of the wise humility of the lowly ass. Wise humility. This is the intuitive state. Its shape is here: the shape of an alms bowl. But it's not just begging, it's also offering: offering a space. Offering the shape of listening. Not to put too fine a point on it, Bottom grows ears.
The artist's work is the creating of an empty space, a listening space. Making way for the other consciously, she has the strength, and the courage, to set aside her workaday certainties, to surrender to the other, to the divine other, to inspiration. Any artist can tell you how fragile that empty space can be, how in need of fierce protection. It just takes one cell phone to breach sublimity's spell. But it is the mindful cultivation of that empty space which invites inspiration. We can consciously hone our intuitive skills, but in the end we cannot command inspiration's arrival. Any Sunday night lesson planning will tell us that. For the ways of inspiration are very mysterious indeed: she comes from without, and she will be asked very nicely.
So for me here is the shape of intuition: two cupped palms-- a humble request, an alms bowl, an offering, a crucible for alchemy. A place to play.