A Philosopher's Blog

Patience Worth & The Muses

Posted in Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 10, 2012
Hypnotic seance

Image via Wikipedia

As I do every spring, I am teaching  my Aesthetics class. As might be expected, one of the subjects I address is the nature of artistic creativity and the creation of the arts. Putting things rather simply (perhaps too simply) one classic issue is whether or not artistic creativity is predominantly a product of reason (the head) or emotion (the heart). As also might be expected, I make use of Plato’s classic Ion and Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” to provide a foundation for the discussion.

Since I teach this class every spring, I am always looking at new ways to present the material-both to improve the class and to fend off the dullness that can come from the seemingly eternal recurrence of teaching the same class. This year I was fortunate to find an interesting addition to the discussion albeit one from the past. To be specific, I ran across the story of Patience Worth in the Smithsonian magazine.

Patience Worth was an author who was very active between 1913 and 1937. She wrote books, such as The Sorry Tale,  and poetry.  She was lauded during her time. Or, to be more accurate, about three centuries after her time. After all, Miss Worth apparently died in an Indian raid  on Nantucket Island in the 1600s.  Worth apparently managed to pull of this remarkable literary feat by  communicating through Pearl Curran, a seemingly otherwise normal St. Louis housewife. While Miss Worth was remarkably successful, having the dead speaking through the living was not all that uncommon during the early 1900s: spiritualism was all the rage and mediums could check up on the dead almost as easily as people check their friends’ Facebook statuses today. What was unusual about Miss Worth is, of course, her success as an author.

While many people took the spiritual explanation at face value, some people were more critical and sought alternative explanations for this (alleged) phenomena. One explanation put forth was the idea of multiple personalities, namely that Patience Worth was merely one of Curran’s personalities and that this personality possessed the creative imagination that Curran alleged lacked.

Interestingly, this explanation fits rather nicely with what Plato says in the Ion:

When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem.

While Plato does not explicitly claim that Ion has multiple personality disorder, what he describes does seem somewhat similar (perhaps with some past life regression thrown in for good measure). Given that authors routinely create different sorts of characters in their works, the idea that they are tapping into multiple personalities in their own mind is not wildly implausible and it seems even more plausible when actors take on such roles (as Aristotle argued, actors do seem to be out of their right minds).

Of course, the multiple personality hypothesis does have some weak points as theory of creativity. After all, having numerous personalities does not explain why any one of them would be creative and the basic question of the origin of creativity would seem unanswered.

Interestingly enough, the noted critic Walter Prince (who, like Harry Houdini, often exposed fake mediums) concluded that Curran lacked the knowledge and ability to produce the works in question and concluded, after a lengthy investigation, that “some cause” had to be operating through Curran.

Assuming that Prince had not been duped, his basic approach seems reasonable: if Curran lacked the ability to produce the writing she was producing, then there had to be some other cause. While the idea that a dead woman was speaking through Curran seems to be, to say the least, far-fetched, it is no crazier than the explanation put forth by Plato in the Ion: “And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. ” As Plato saw it, it is the muses who speak through the poets and their artistic creativity is not actually their own, but rather that of the gods. This is a bit more dramatic than channeling a dead human, but the idea that there is a supernatural cause behind artistic creativity is common to both.

It is, as an aside, interesting to note that Plato did not ascribe philosophical creativity or ability to such divine possessions. Of course, he did seem to hold that philosophical understanding was acquired by somehow communing with the forms while one is between lives (that is, dead). As such, Plato does consistently ascribe supernatural foundations to both artistry and philosophy. Not surprisingly, he does regard the philosophic as vastly superior (as he argues in Book X of the Republic).

Getting back to the main issue, the medium hypothesis for creativity (and Plato’s Muse hypothesis) mainly serves to push the question back. After all, if ordinary Curran’s creativity is explained in terms of Worth’s creativity (or a poet’s creativity is explained in terms of the Muses), then the foundation of Worth’s creativity (and the Muses’ creativity) would still be in need of explanation. This, supernaturally enough, creates the threat of an infinite regress in which any agent of creativity must in turn have its creativity explained. While such a regress can be stopped, it must be stopped in a principled manner-that is, a plausible and adequately defended foundation of creativity must be reached. In the case of the Worth hypothesis, Curran’sc creativity is accounted for, but not Worth’s.  As such, the medium and Muse hypotheses seem to be incomplete. I do not, unfortunately, have the completion on hand.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Patience Worth is that Curran simply made her up. After all, this explanation fits rather nicely with Hume’s discussion of miracles and it seems much more probably that Curran was fabricating rather than channeling. After all, it is well established that people fabricate and not well established that the dead continue to exist and can be channeled to write books. This explanation does not, however, help at all to explain creativity-but it does give an excellent example of double creativity: an author who creates another author to create her works.

Perhaps I will solve this problem next year. Or next life.

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11 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on February 10, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Seth Speaks!

    I haven’t thought about these books in years.

    Who is Seth ?

    Seth is the internationally acclaimed spiritual teacher who spoke through the author Jane Roberts while she was in trance, and coined the phrase “You Create Your Own Reality.” Seth’s empowering message literally launched the New Age movement.

    The books written by Seth have sold over seven million copies and have been translated into over eleven languages.

    Seth’s clear presentation of the furthest reaches of human potential, the eternal validity of the soul, and the concept that we create our own reality according to our beliefs, has rippled out to affect the lives of people in every corner of the globe.

    Seth’s voice clearly stands out as one of the major forces which led to the current New Age philosophical movement.

    http://www.sethlearningcenter.org/

    • Douglas Moore said, on February 10, 2012 at 9:40 am

      I remember these books quite clearly; they were popular when I was in college and I remember as guy I worked with in a pizza restaurant swore by them. I argued biblical perspectives and he argued from Out on a Limb. It was quite interesting.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 10, 2012 at 2:30 pm

      New Age Philosophy is to philosophy what Scientology is to science.

      • wtp said, on February 10, 2012 at 11:15 pm

        I would say that what passes for philosophy in the modern age is to philosophy what Scientology is to science. But I’ve got no right to say it.

  2. dhammett said, on February 10, 2012 at 11:02 am

    The vid at the end of your article is worth a look.

    Creativity exists at many levels. These guys got together with a goal in mind. They cooperated to create the final product. They used their imaginations , their experiences, their skills, and the tools at hand (much as authors, painters, sculptors, musicians, etc. do) tossed in a doggy fat suit (the contribution of their “muse” ,perhaps?) , and “Voila!”

    The dog’s story is a perhaps too-simple metaphor for America. . .where we still are, where we should be, and how we can get there. The dog doesn’t own the pool, but he has access to it, and he uses it. He doesn’t own the treadmill, but he has access to it, and he uses it. The dog figures all of this out on his own. I’ll let Mike explain that leap—next year or next life. The important thing is he lets nothing deter him from his goal. He pursues it with dogged determination.

    The clear message is that, even if you’re a fat, hopeless canine, if you are focused and strong-willed and have access to some considerable advantages—like large in-ground pools and treadmills—you can, in time, slim down and outrace a Volkswagen.
    That is the message, right?

  3. Amos Doyle said, on February 15, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    The Patient Worth/Pearl Curran case is “worthy” of study by anyone interested in creativity and the human mind. If one can just ignore the spirit hypothesis for a moment and study the writing of Patience Worth one can’t help but come away in awe of her ability to write, and to write beautifully while conveying deep thoughts and philosophies that resonate with the human heart. The problem with this case is the question of knowledge. Where did Pearl Curran get the detailed information concerning past history that she wrote about through Patience Worth. If Patient Worth was a multiple personality of Pearl Curran where did she (Pearl) learn about archaic anglo-saxon language? Where did she learn about race and religious relationships in the biblical middle east? Where did she learn about the detailed cultural habits of early Romans, Jews, Greeks and desert peoples? Where did she learn about upper class Victorian day-to-day life? There had to be a knowledge-in in order to have a knowledge-out and after much study and evaluation of this case no one has been able to discover when and where Pearl Curran learned about the detailed historical facts to write such novels as “The Sorry Tale”, “The Pot Upon The Wheel”, “Telka”. “Samuel Wheaton” “An Elizabethan Mask” ,”Hope Trueblood” and hundreds of poems and aphorisms. These novels and other writings span an historical period of almost 2000 years. Where did Pearl learn this extensive information? This is a complicated case and deserves to be studied much more than it is. It is often rather flippantly mentioned and disregarded as if the answer to the riddle has been identified and that Patience Worth was a multiple or dissociated personality of Pearl Curran or that Pearl was just making it all up. Perhaps this is true but within this case, I think, could be found an answer to man’s deepest question, that,is, Does the human consciousness survive the death of the body? For those interested in this question I recommend reading the writings of Patience Worth and then,for the scientifically minded, read “Irreducible Mind: A Psychology for the 21st Century.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 16, 2012 at 11:47 am

      Amos,

      The epistemic problem is a rather interesting one. After all, if someone knows something of the past that they could have not learned from any source other than from (or by being) an eye witness, then that would support the past life (or contacting the dead) hypothesis. Of course, information that does exist and could be found would not serve as very good evidence. That does create a rather serious problem: if someone claims to know X about the past and we can confirm it in source Y, the most plausible explanation is that they had access to source Y. What would be needed, ideally, would be some unknown fact that could then be tested (like giving the location of a lost city or providing a translation of an unknown language).

  4. Amos Doyle said, on February 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Michael,
    Patience Worth does come close to providing unknown facts that were subsequently tested and found to be accurate. Specifically, her use of the English language in her novel “Telka” and in other works in which archaic words of Anglo-Saxon origin were used. Apparently,usage by Patience of Anglo-Saxon-derived words reportedly known only to the most studious philologist was investigated by Caspar Yost and reported in detail. His analysis can be found in Walter Franklin Prince’s book “The Case of Patience Worth” in which he reports his investigation of Pearl Curran in the middle 1920s. For example the use of “regale” as a noun meaning a stringed musical instrument and the use of the word “cockshut” which was found to have been used once by Shakespeare and which Patience used as “cockshut time” are not easy to explain if one has to rely on Pearl Curran’s known education and exposure to literature or current dictionaries. It is difficult to explain how Pearl Curran had access to this knowledge of old English word usage when she had little or no interest in literature and had barely completed grade school. Generally, it is difficult to explain how Pearl Curran knew such intimate details (food, clothing, jewelry, market place relations, cultural status) about the day-to-day goings-on of Romans, Jews and others during the time of Jesus. The voluminous detail in “The Sorry Tale” is overwhelming even for the historian who has spent his or her academic career studing that time. (Actually she did include in “The Sorry Tale” reference to walls with gates around Bethlehem, I believe, which were not know to exist but which subsequently have been found.)

    An easy explanation used by some is “super-psi” , that is, that Pearl Curran had some psychic access to all of the information known by anyone everywhere throughout time and she could willy-nilly pick and choose what she wanted for her stories. There is no way to refute this explanation.

    Pearl Curran herself however did explain her experience when she wrote “The Sorry Tale” as seeing a panoramic view of the scene in her mind in which she was a small spectator in the corner. She said that she was able to interact with the scene presented to her and to walk over to the market booths and taste the fruit on sale. She was able to smell the flowers. She was able to hear the conversation of the vendors at the booths eventhough she didn’t understand the language and overall, she could hear Patient Worth interpreting the conversation and giving her (Pearl) the part that she (Patience) wanted to use in the story.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 17, 2012 at 10:59 am

      I’m inclined to steal from Hume’s discussion of miracles here. While it seems unlikely that she would have known about such sources, they did exist. As such, it seems more probable that she had access to some of these sources rather than appealing to a supernatural explanation.

      There is also the matter of a “lucky guess” and focusing on what she got right and ignoring what she got wrong. Now, if her descriptions were very accurate across the board and included significant information that was only learned later on, then those would be in favor of the extraordinary epistemology hypothesis.

  5. Amos Doyle said, on February 16, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Please permit me to allow Pearl Curran to explain her experience of creativity with Patience Worth in her own words as she wrote them in “A Nut For Psychologists”, as published in Walter Franklin Prince’s book “The Case of Patience Worth” pages 394-398.

    “[P]atience Worth never obsesses me, and I feel as normally about her as I do about any other friend who has gone into the great beyond.

    Whatever may be the association which I describe as the presence of Patience Worth, it is one of the most beautiful that it can be the privilege of a human being to experience. Through this contact I have been educated to a deeper spiritual understanding and appreciation than I might have acquired in any study I can conceive of. Six years ago I could not have understood the literature of Patience Worth, had it been shown to me. And I doubt if it would have attracted me sufficiently to give me the desire to study it.

    The pictorial visions which accompany the coming of the words have acted as a sort of primer, and gradually developed within me a height of appreciation by persistently tempting my curiosity with representations of incidents and symbols. I am like a child with a magic picture book. Once I look upon it, all I have to do is to watch its pages open before me, and revel in their beauty and variety and novelty.

    Probably this is the most persistent phase of the phenomena, this series of panoramic and symbolic pictures which never fail to show with each expression of Patience where there is any possibility of giving an ocular illustration of an expression.

    When the poems come, there also appear before my eyes images of each successive symbol, as the words are given me. If the stars are mentioned, I see them in the sky. If heights or deeps or wide spaces are mentioned, I get positively frightening sweeps of space. So it is with the smaller things of Nature, the fields, the flowers and trees, with the field animals, whether they are mentioned in the poem or not.

    When the stories come, the scenes become panoramic, with the characters moving and acting their parts, even speaking in converse. The picture is not confined to the point narrated, but takes in everything else within the circle of vision at the time. For instance, if two people are seen talking on the street, I see not only them, but the neighboring part of the street, with the building, stones, dogs, people and all, just as they would be in a real scene. (Or are these scenes actual reproductions?) If the people talk a foreign language, as in The Sorry Tale, I hear the talk, but over and above is the voice of Patience, either interpreting or giving me the part she wishes to use as story.

    What a wonderful privilege this is can only be imagined by one who cannot see the actuality. [O]ne very odd and interesting phase of the phenomena is the fact that during the time of transcribing the matter and watching the tiny panorama unfold before me, I have often seen myself, small as one of the characters, standing as an onlooker, or walking among the people in the play. When I became curious to ascertain, for instance, what sort of fruit a market man was selling, or the smell of some flower, or the feel of some texture which was foreign to my experience, this tiny figure of myself would boldly take part in the play, quite naturally, perhaps, walking to the bin-side of the market man and taking up the fruit and tasting it, or smelling the flower within a garden, or feeling the cloth, or in any natural way attending to the problem in hand. And the actual experience; for it was a real to me as any personal experience, becoming physically mine, recorded by my sight, taste and smell as other experiences. Thus I have become familiar with many flowers of strange places which I never saw, but know when I see them again in pictures. I have shuddered at obnoxious odors, or have been quite exalted by the beauty of some object, or filled with joy at beholding some flower which I had never seen before. It is like traveling in new and unknown regions, and I am filled with an impulse to let myself go, that I may follow out the intricate pattern of the story, with things I have never known—with the kind of jugs and lamps used in far countries in the long ago, and the various methods of cooking or certain odd and strange customs of dress or jewelry. I know many manners and customs of early England, or old Jerusalem, and of Spain and France.”


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