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Hermann Hesse reading a book

Hermann Hesse used simple doors to symbolize the entrance to hidden realities in his controversial novel, Steppenwolf. (Photo: Wikimedia)

For centuries, philosophers have made mention of a “hidden reality” and then speculated as to its nature and how one might dispel illusion and bring what is hidden within sight. Those given to metaphysical speculation posit another world reached by passing through a portal. We have all seen the movies and television series inspired by the old tales of magical caves or fairy rings that, once entered, transport one to another place not of this Earth. Spiritual types speak of supernatural beings inhabiting spirit worlds “beyond” our normal ken. The belief gave rise to some of the world’s largest religions.

The idea of a hidden reality or an unseen place where spirits dwell is so prevalent in human cultures that one must assume it has some basis in human psychology.

The arts are also a place where these beliefs come into play. Artists of all kinds are skilled at sensing subtle shades of difference or meaning that others seem to miss. Often, they then believe they have detected a hidden reality and feel the need to share their insight by making it visible. The works of art these creators produce are an attempt to communicate to others the clues that reveal the subtle hidden reality the more sensitive artist has detected.

Writers especially have used such philosophical or spiritual ideas in their works. For writers, the idea of a hidden reality has been especially attractive and fruitful. The simple door is a common image used to symbolize the entry to another reality, one that Hermann Hesse employed to powerful effect in his famous novel, Steppenwolf. His protagonist, Harry Haller, enters no fewer than five magical doors each of which brings him to a strange reality related to various aspects of his troubled life.

Virginia Woolf spoke of her “yearning towards the numinous.” The use of the term “numinous” reveals her belief that what she sensed – and found alluring – was beyond the mundane world in which she lived. Mystical feeling is common among creators largely due to their heavy reliance on the mysterious associative (non-linear) thinking faculty and their fondness for particular nuanced feeling tones. The subtle moods they long to experience are often unconscious and can acquire a numinous aspect by being tantalizingly just out of reach.

Mystical feeling in an artist sets up a powerful creative polarity, since it is also true that artists want to reveal, want to “see” the hidden reality, experience it, revel in it even, and then share it with others through their art. This powerful urge to “show and tell” prevents them from simply worshipping dimly sensed “mysteries.” They prefer to explore and experience, prefer to know the truth, prefer to capture the found truth and embody it in a work of art.

The key point here is that artists differ from mystics and the religious in a vitally important way. Artists are by trade more concrete. Abstractions do not cut it with them. They feel the need to embody the data of experience in an object such as a statue, a painting, a poem, or a novel. Even musical compositions are an attempt to objectify experience: the composer wants you to hear what he felt. Furthermore, the creator not only wants to objectify his subjective experience and share it with others; he wants what he has created to last.

We can express what the artist does in terms that are more modern. The artist embodying his insights and experience in some revealing physical form is making fractals of the cosmos.

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