Article by Stephen Morrissey
Montreal Journal of Poetics, spring-summer, 1979
While R.M. Bucke's work is usually considered only in terms of psychology it also presents us with an interesting theory of literature. Educated at McGill University Bucke later worked as a psychiatrist in London, Ontario. His most important work, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, published in 1901, is in part a critique of literature from Bucke's own original and unique standpoint. The poets he deals with are those who, he maintains, have attained a consciousness of the cosmos. Essentially, Bucke is examining consciousness and trying to resolve the problem of life-weariness and anxiety. His solution lies in the intensity of awareness of the creative individual, the artist. For Bucke, as for Otto Rank and Abraham Maslow much later, the artist is the individual who really sees life clearly and who is the most healthy-minded.
Bucke's work on the psychology of healthy-mindedness coincides with that of William James (who briefly discusses Bucke's work in The Varieties of Religious Experience), and it anticipates that of Maslow and his idea of the "peak experience". Bucke's importance is only partially understood: seventy-eight years after the publication of Cosmic Consciousness he is still considered in the restricted, but still important, sense of being one of the first scientists to discuss mystical experience; by applying his work to literary criticism we may arrive at an analytical position to literature that is fundamentally forward looking and whole. Perhaps this would also serve as a source of evaluation for the literature of the future.
Bucke began by placing cosmic consciousness at the center of his work. His most important example of the artist expressing cosmic consciousness is Walt Whitman, although Bucke also discusses William Blake, Dante, Balzac and others. These writers, Bucke contends, have certain similarities in both their writing and lives, these similarities are evidence for what Bucke believed was "the evolution of the human mind"; this evolution is a movement from an egocentric self-consciousness to a cosmic conscious state. Bucke is interested in the poets whose work shows this "consciousness of the cosmicÉof the life and order of the universe—an intellectual enlightenment or illumination." Poets whose work shows them moving towards cosmic consciousness are actually participating in the evolution of the human mind.
Indeed, an objective of poetry, Bucke suggests, is the possibility of cosmic consciousness. As such, poetry is a movement away from the narrowness of egocentric consciousness. His work in psychology is revolutionary in that he deals with the intensity of the artist, rather than with the tunnel vision of ordinary self-consciousness or with the neurotic and mentally ill. We seem preoccupied today by the negative, the defeated, and the life-deniers have tended to overwhelm our literature. For Bucke this life-denial points to the insecurity the self-conscious mind feels as it atrophies and a cosmic consciousness appears, however gradual this appearance may be. Emerson writes, "I think nothing is of any value in books excepting the transcendental and extraordinary." In other words, our literature, to have value, must be an investigation of the content of consciousness, of the mind as it really is.
It could be said that poets are not giving the reading public what it needs; poetry must suggest real meaning and values if it is to have any validity, to ignore this is for poetry to remain with its present minor importance to society. This is an activity that the individual who is seriously investigating consciousness, his being, naturally does—because meaning and values, not ideology, of the state or religion, are created by the investigation itself. This calls for a poetry that is a real meditation on experience, relationship and our perception of existence.
The poets who have real importance are those who leave the known, the security of preconceptions, beliefs and traditions, of an intellectual fragmented approach to living We do not need a philosophy of living or of poetry, what we do need is an attitude that is based on living perceptions. Bucke's criticism is not for some airy abstract poetry or art, but ultimately must lead to a concrete realistic exploration of life.
Bucke has placed what has traditionally been a religious experience at the center of his thinking. His evaluation of literature is fundamentally an organic one: Bucke isn't giving any directives as to style or form or even content of literature. He seems to be saying that literature should be based on an active perception of the universe, the world around us. Bucke's philosophy should be placed with that of Heraclitus, Bergson, Teilhard and Whitehead. Bucke is supremely for the individual who can think for himself, who is a pioneer in society in the realm of examining and understanding consciousness. He calls for a radical understanding of our existence. I think Bucke would agree with Tilhard de Chardin when he writes, "The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself."
Copyright © 2007 The author