April 2, 2012

Hypnography: A Study in the Therapeutic Use of Hypnotic Painting
Elizabeth Zuba


The paintings in the left column above were painted by psychiatric patients under hypnosis between 1954-1956 in Melbourne (found in the clinical study Hypnography by Dr. Ainslie Meares); Henri Michaux painted the paintings in the right column through his process of autohypnosis between 1971-1983.

Since Max Planck's accidental discovery of the discrete behavior of light photons in his work on blackbody radiation in 1900 (the first flutter of quantum theory), our understanding of the mechanics of our existence has radically shifted to absorb the fact that what we see is definitively different from what is happening. There is a fundamental fracture between the appearance of a thing and its actual (yet unknowable) sum and substance; i.e. there is a fundamental fracture between the material of thing and its immaterial. Ainslie Meares and Henri Michaux, in their respective fields, both worked from this premise, and both used automatic painting to seek to access an immaterial nexus. I'm not sure if it is because of that fact or despite it, that the extraordinary similitude of so many of their paintings (painted continents and years apart, and under radically different conditions and intentions of hypnosis) is so baffling and bizarre, and utterly enchanting ... but it is! And despite rubbing my eyes countless times now, I can't help but think art's "treat of mysteries", as Roger Cardinal describes it, seems to be wading strangely into treat of immaterial here.

Ainslie Meares belonged to a generation of psychiatrists emerging from the new Jungian tradition of analytical psychology who believed in the primacy of the individual and collective unconscious to the human condition, and the importance of resourcing the unconscious in order to better understand that condition. Carl Jung's contributions to the field of psychotherapy are legion; among them, the use of both dream analysis and art therapy to access the unconscious. Jung didn't use hypnosis in his own practice, but his mentor Sigmund Freud did; Freud was trained early on in hypnosis (used then primarily for suggestion or catharsis) but abandoned it quickly in favor of developing the more interpretive properties of his germinal psychoanalysis. Later in life, Freud suggested that hypnosis could be effectively used for psychoanalytic purposes; a few therapists eventually heeded that suggestion—enter Meares.

To grasp while abstracting yourself ever more, to grasp the tendency, the accent, the pace, the space. To grasp the underlying.
                              (Michaux, from Grasp, trans. by Sieburth)

Hypnography is a clinical study of the use of hypnotic art therapy in a psychiatric hospital in Melbourne. The book opens with a long introduction that includes a history of medical hypnosis, the practical applications of art therapy, and a description of the "hypnographic" process. What follows are some 200 pages of the patients' paintings and their verbal associations (poems?) made under hypnosis. They are strangely captivating. Meares's process goes like this—once the patient is deep in trance, Meares hands her or him a wet paintbrush and says "Here is a paint brush, here is a paint book, I dip the brush in the paint, your hand takes the brush, your hand paints whatever it is" (whatever it is!); the patient paints until she voluntarily puts down the brush; Meares then asks her "What is it your hand has painted?" and she describes what she sees. By disassociating the hand from the self, the material from cognition, and then language from material expression, Meares proposes that the patients are able to access an expression of the underlying processes of their unconscious minds (which include archetypal patterns that support Jung's model of the collective unconscious). In Meares' assessment, painting permeates the unconscious less obtrusively than other media and is more effective in communicating its "ripply" activity; patients were more likely to communicate "uncontrolled" material without cognitive "organizing" when using black paint and when using paint and brush (pencil and crayon for drawing frustrated the "fluidity" and speed of the unconscious). (Could these have been Michaux's reasonings as well? or was he in fact simply following a Chinese calligraphic model? ... or did perhaps a dynamic of fluidity play a role in the ancient Chinese development of a brush utensil versus a stylus once papyrus had become the writing surface of choice?) In fact, he says, so ripply are the images expressed, that their psychoanalytic significance can only become perceptible through the patient's verbal associations. According to Meares, (and in striking mirror image to Michaux's process) the therapeutic value of hypnography lies not in the paintings themselves but in the communication between the paintings and the patient's verbal associations while still under hypnosis; because the patient is still tapped to the unconscious, her mind is able to follow what she's painted in a way that Meares frequently cannot. Like Michaux, Meares is skeptical of automatic writing's ability to communicate the fluctuating strobe-like quality of the unconscious. Michaux felt that the unconscious nexus, by its very nature pre- or dia- or ultra-linguistic, could simply never be resourced by linguistic means; linguistic expression is consciousness conductive. ('The handcuffs of words are on for good." Michaux, from Grasp, trans. by Sieburth) In agreement with that premise, Meares discovered that during hypnography sessions, his patients were entirely non-emotive until prompted to narrate what they'd drawn; then, and only then, did some abreact or show some recognition of content. Like Michaux, he concludes that language compromises the fluid nature of the unconscious.


O reverently puzzled by these images am I! Michaux and Meares might likely conclude that any similarities in these paintings point to the channeling of some shared unconscious life-nexus, something beyond the individual subconscious. It could of course simply be a common physiological manifestation of disassociation from the cognitive mind. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has been suggested that Michaux may have suffered from mental illness; Michaux talked frequently about the multiple voices that sought to speak through the human self, his own included. Personally, I don't buy that he was any more mentally unstable than any of the rest of us, but I do think he may have wished he were and certainly aimed to reach states of less strict and stable consciousness as frequently as possible. "More than the all too excellent skills of the metaphysicians, it is the dementias, the backwardness, the deliriums, the ecstasies and agonies, the breakdowns in mental skills which are really suited to 'reveal' us to ourselves", sayeth he. Inasmuch, Michaux and Meares indeed had begun their unique hypno-painting-reflecting process within 15 years of each other (1920s and late 1930s respectively); while it's close to impossible that either would have known of the other's work, it is very evident that they were working out of similar doctrines. Michaux was undoubtedly much influenced by Jung's theories of the unconscious, not to mention the Freud and Jung-derivative writings of Georges Bataille, Gaston Bachelard, Jacques Lacan, etc.

"I was following. But what was I following? With a frail, tilted structure in the air, I joined in the grand and noble exalting adventure of elucidating the Universe in it entirety.
                              (Michaux, from Grasp, trans. by Sieburth)

Our human experience has been, by and large, limited to our capacity to understand it. It is a failure of cognition that we are compelled to order cognition; and inasmuch, it is a failure of cognition to dismiss the unconscious because it is not cognizable and ipso facto unorderable. (And a real bummer of a regressive development of late 20th century philosophy). Physicists, though, have come to accept a certain amount of unknowable disorder (Einstein could not, and it was his great failure in what has become known as the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox). As solid-state physicist David Mermin puts it "The real puzzle is not how the world can behave in such a manner, but what it is in the way we think about the world that causes us to find such behavior so puzzling." (Spooky actions at a distance: mysteries of the quantum theory, 1988.)

Nevertheless, the unknowable has had a hold over the human effort to understand reality since the dawn of the axial age, across fields of inquiry, and despite my predictable knee-jerk reaction to chuckle at those misty-eyed dreamers Mears and Michaux, it would just be nonsense to dismiss great swaths of the history of human thought. At the risk of serious reductionistic summary, a quick stock of the history of philosophy since Socrates shows a sustained obsession with the unconscious (the not accessible by our consciousness). The Theory of Forms (central to all Platonist and Neoplatonist philosophy) put forward the idea of an intelligible but categorically imperceptible non-material Form that functions as the source for our known (shadow) reality. In Cratylus, Plato advanced the idea that the inherently abstract and fluid nature of ideas and words was antipodal to logic and reason. Not much later Heraclitus, in his seminal work On Nature, described space and time as life forces that could only be understood in the unconscious; a space-time continuum of duration and movement in which the past, present and future flow in and out of one another in such a way that can't be comprehended by human cognition (wildly portending quantum particle behavior, another (R)eal we can't reconcile with "reality" as we know it). Leibniz, Kant, Schelling, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lacan, others, all endeavored in theories (though of serious doctrinal differences) that address "materiality" and "being" as abstractions or extensions of the unconscious (again portending quantum behavior of our physical world mechanics, specifically the holographic principle); not to mention the Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Lingis vein of phenomenology—things are simultaneously themselves and not themselves, here and not here, conscious and unconscious. Like quantum theory, a phenomenological interpretation of reality proposes a profound intimacy and communication between entities that we don't yet fully understand. And let us not forget those modern scientists of dream interpretation—psychoanalysts Freud and Jung (whose theory of the archetypes evolved out of Platonist philosophy, practical application and Nietzsche; "In our sleep and in our dreams we pass through the whole thought of earlier humanity. ... The dream carries us back into earlier states of human culture, and affords us a means of understanding it better." Nietzsche, from Human, All Too Human.)

In terms of science and mathematics, that which we cannot understand at a conscious or cognitive level is often referred to as the "immeasurable"—that stuff outside of what we can currently measure. It is, however, not nothing. Nothing cannot exist in our universe (nope, not even in black holes); i.e. in physics, what we don't know is still something. Science and math are applications of the known to further our grasp of the unknown. Prior to the science revolution (16th-17th centuries) which laid the groundwork for modern science, most sciences were underscored by theistic or supernatural theory; naturalism has prevailed since. But, as described above, and to Einstein's chagrin, quantum theory necessarily deviates from materialistic determinism; and proves its fallacy. (It should be said that physicists as a rule emphatically reject metaphysical interpretations of quantum theory.) Interestingly enough, as we know, quantum mechanics was not discovered through the application of any cognized theory; particulate quantum behavior could never have been anticipated at the theoretical level. I mean, seriously, what scientist worth her salt would have ever surmised that our physical world is a mere flickering holograph in which time and space are secondary physical forces? And this is where the math comes in; Max Planck didn't know why or how light could be lumpy, he just knew that if he added a particular step into the calculation he could account for certain features of the radiation. In this case, and in much of quantum physics, it was mathematics guiding the bewildered human consciousness into the unknown—a little twist on the unknown having a hold over the human effort to understand reality, eh? ("The materialist is a metaphysician malgré lui.", Carl Jung.)


In his essay "Magic", Yeats puts forward his belief that individual minds are fluid and flow in and out of one another, creating or revealing "a single mind, a single energy": "our members are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself." Jung, and Joseph Campbell for that matter, heartily agreed, and as evidence, present the occurrence of certain repeating archetypal images, themes and patterns in the dreams of unrelated individuals (and in the mythologies of isolated cultures, ie. the monomyth) as evident of the group-dream that informs our human psyche. Does such correlative phenomena imply that the creative makings of the mind (those of Michaux and Meares's patients, for example) originate from a shared energetic provenance, be it molecular, phenomenological, or divine?

Maybe. The hypostasis for the making of art over the last 3000 years or so has certainly overwhelmingly tended to be ek-stasis; endless works of art have germinated from channeling the unconscious (or "inner mind" or "other side" or "divine"). Divine inspiration took root in ancient India and Classical Greece, held strong through Germany and Japan in the middle ages, and flourished from the Renaissance to the Romantics. By the late 19th Century, opiates and absinthe had become equally popular divination tuning forks for freeing the mind and channeling the occult, the mysterious, the dream-world. (This seems like a natural re-routing; God had been rapidly dying since the French Revolution and Nietzsche helped seal the deal.) Anyway, the consanguinity of art and the unconscious seems well-established. But, working from the Oxford dictionary's primary definition of art (inadequate, yes, but as a jumping off point) as "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power", what about imagination and the unconscious? Jung believed that the human mind is particularly rich with archaic and primordial images (imagination) from the collective unconscious during infancy and childhood because it has not yet developed modes of rationality or objective cognition; i.e. children are disposed to fantasy and imagination because of a natural fluidity between the conscious and unconscious. Could it be that, a la Picasso, all children are semi-conscious artists and the problem is how to remain semi-conscious once we grow up? That the life-nexus of the shared unconscious reveals itself through (and between) the more cognitive-resistant manifestations of human expression (art, poetry, dance)? As to the relationship between beauty and the unconscious, Kant's philosophy of aesthetics in Critique of Judgement examines what he sees as an essential integrity of these two states—we find something beautiful because there is an unknowable shared existence between oneself and the thing. The fact that our existence is a mesh of quantum entanglements could be seen as corroborating the idea that a shared unconscious existence is what permits the recognition (feeling) of beauty and the sublime. ...I like that so much and have been going on too long at this point, that I'm going to let that hugely debatable notion of aesthetics gape forlornly until another time.

"My hand is entirely the instrument of a more distant sphere." Paul Klee

"So, being this age (4 years old, the age Notley channeled through trance while writing Mysteries) when I'm not "bent" yet by socialization [...], I can enter the other houses and ages and observe them dispassionately. This is my basic self observing what has happened. I discussed the process a lot with Doug and he didn't totally like what I was saying, because it left out sexuality and the frisson of evil, and maybe, some evolution into the good or even the better. I thought my premise held though. I wasn't interested in the good, or sexuality, at this point, I was interested in the truth. [...] In general, I think poets write from a trance state ... and this fact should be talked about more."
                              Alice Notley, interview with CA Conrad on tenbyfour

Suffice to say, artists have long been very aware of, and vocal about, the need to circumvent the cognitive or reasoning mind; references here are endless, but for quickie quotes I like Sol LeWitt's "Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically"; and Ashbery's "I don't find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness comes to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don't think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life." And while artists tend not to directly say they're making work from a trance state as Notley does, most wouldn't likely argue with such a notion. Then again, it could simply be that artists strive to recreate what we imagine is the expression of the unconscious nexus. Sure, but why? Then again, why might not be the right question, or even how, for that matter. Like Planck, it might just be better to follow the calculation (in this case, Meares + patients + automatic painting = Michaux + automatic painting) with neither justification nor explanation, but simply bewilderment, toward "whatever it is".

"At this juncture, there is still something I desire above all else. A continuum. A murmur without end, like life itself—which continues us, above and beyond quality. Impossible to draw as if this continuum did not exist. This is what needs to be bodied forth."
                              (Michaux, Emergences-Resurgences, trans. by Sieburth)

In the course of talking over this book with friends, I discovered that poet Kristin Prevallet is a practicing hypnotherapist; she conducts workshops on automatic writing, dream metaphors and hypnogeography in NYC. (I'm going to my first workshop next month!) You can find her and much more informed thoughts on hypnosis and the unconscious at trancepoetics.com.

Elizabeth Zuba writes and translates in Brooklyn. She is currently translating Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers's first four books of poetry for his estate.

View Hypnography in the catalog.

Read other Word Processor essays.