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The daimonic: The soul of creativity

Rollo May:

"Already in Aeschylus, the daimonic is both subjective and objective – which is the sense in which I use it in this book. The problem is always to see both sides of the daimonic, to see phenomena of the inner experience of the individual without psychologizing away our relation to nature, to fate, and to the ground of our being. If the daimonic is purely objective, you run the danger of sliding into superstition in which man is simply the victim of external powers. If, on the other hand, you take it purely subjectively, you psychologize the daimonic; everything tends to be a projection and to become more and more superficial; you end up without the strength of nature, and you ignore the objective conditions of existence, such as infirmity and death. This latter way leads to a solipsistic oversimplification. Caught in such a solipsism, we lose even our ultimate hope. The greatness of Aeschylus is that he sees and preserves both sides so clearly."

Rudyard Kipling:

"When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, obey."

Allan Bloom:

"But when it [the word "creativity"] was first used for man, it had the odor of blasphemy and paradox. God alone had been called a creator; and this was the miracle of miracles, beyond causality, a denial of the premise of all reason, ex nihilo nihil fit. What defines man is no longer his reason, which is but a tool for his preservation, but his art, for in art man can be said to be creative. There he brings order to chaos. The greatest men are not the knowers but the artists, the Homers, Dantes, Raphaels and Beethovens. Art is not imitation of nature but liberation from nature. A man who can generate visions of a cosmos and ideals by which to live is a genius, a mysterious, demonic being. Such a man's great work of art is himself. He who can take his person, a chaos of impressions and desires, a thing whose very unity is doubtful, and give it order and unity, is a personality."

Adam Phillips:

"‘Criticism,’ Hartman writes, ‘has an unacknowledged penchant for reversal in it, which is near daemonic, and which brings it close to the primacy of art.’ ‘Reversal’ here means that the omnipotent figure previously referred to as God can be accused of setting away with something; that a world in which people can accuse each other of getting away with things is a world of competing authority, a world in which there is no final or absolute authority. A world, as Hartman puts it, of ‘daemonic’ reversals."

Martin Laird described the beliefs of early Egyptian Christian contemplatives:

"The demons could not enter the inner depths of the person. This was the Lord's domain. But the demons could exert considerable effort to keep us ignorant of these inner depths by bombarding us with whatever thoughts would most likely excite our patterns of obsession (the technical term for them is 'the passions')."

Patrick Harpur:

"They are also linked to the fate of individuals, just like the personal daimones, described by Plato in The Republic, which are assigned to us at birth and control our destiny. And I am going to follow Plato in calling all these fairy-like beings daimons (sometimes spelt daemons) – which are not of course to be confused with the demons Christianity turned them into. All daimons share the attributes of the Sidhe. They are emphatically not ‘spirits’ – the word anthropologists use, for want of a better, to describe them – because they are, like the land-spirit Bard, as much physical as spiritual. The notion that daimons are both material and immaterial is the most difficult of their many contradictions to grasp.

* * *

The Romantics imagined Nature in this way. Imagination was coextensive with Creation, just like the Soul of the World. They were identical. Every natural object was both spiritual and physical, as if dryad and tree were the inside and outside of the same thing. Thus every rock and tree was ambivalent: a daimon, a soul, an image." (Harpur, pp. 6-7, 38)

He also wrote:

"Like all monotheistic religions, Christianity is intolerant of daemonic ambiguity. Daimons cannot, for instance, be allowed to be both benevolent and malign; they must be divided into either devils or angels. The man responsible for introducing angels into Christianity was the anonymous fifth-century mystic known as Dionysius the Areopagite. Although he was a Christian, his works were heavily indebted to the Neoplatonists, and particularly to Proclus, who taught in Athens around AD 430. Dionysius appropriated the Neoplatonic daimons, but did away with their ambiguity, making them into purely spiritual, angelic beings." (Harpur, p. 8)

And:

“As traditional cultures suspect, we too many be not so much dual beings as single beings with dual aspects – we differ according to the element we are in. We too are daimonic.” (Harpur, p. 26)

Thomas Moore:

The Greeks used the word daimon as a general description of a nameless god or goddess, a spirit that could be powerful but that didn't have an elaborate story or a clear identity. In the Iliad we see the daimon warning and advising the soldiers as they go about their dangerous work, making decisions of life and death. Yeats emphasizes the contrast of wills between a person or group and its inspiring daimon, and he seems to do so more from experience than idea.

* * *

We are still driven by daimons, but we give them abstract names — power, greed, ambition, desire, love, will. In each of these a powerful daimon resides, but we prefer to imagine the spirit euphemistically and apotropaically as psychological. As an abstraction and a problem, it can be dealt with intellectually. But the mind is not up to such a presence, which pummels and seduces us in the areas of emotion and meaning.

A daimon is not a problem; it is the source of our creativity and identity. In the daimonic it is not easy to distinguish the good and the bad. If in our fear and confusion we fail to engage it, it becomes difficult to handle, and then the negative qualities appear to dominate. But when we take on this daimonic force courageously — it does call for stoutheartedness — then we may discover how creative and constructive it can be.

See also Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials which presumes that everyone contains a “Daemon”, an animal spirit.

Sources

Rollo May, Love and Will, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1969. p. 136

Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself, 1936. Quoted in The American Scholar, Autumn 2011, p. 130.

Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. pp. 180- 181.

Adam Phillips. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. p. 104.

Martin Laird, O.S.A. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 50.

Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2002). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.

Thomas Moore. Original Self: Living with Paradox and Originality. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. pp. 108, 109.

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