Purity of Mind is to Think One Thing

11 February 2010


William Blake's 'Angel of Revelation' is a fitting figure of the inspirations of genius.

Thinking again of what I wrote few days ago in The Mind’s Singular Function, I realized that I should have said that, while the product of inspiration could be considered a memorialization of the singular, it is important to note that it is in no sense an attempt to reproduce, recreate, simulate, or imitate the singular episode of inspiration. In so far as a work of creative expression is a memorialization of the singular, it is an oblique memorialization, and mimesis plays no part in it. This follows from the fact I previously noted that inspiration is not identical to the products derived from inspiration. This makes of the intellectual singular a haeccietas more absolute than any chance event in the mundane world, which latter may have representational memorializations. Inspiration is not a representational memorialization.

I realize that my formulations are as yet highly imperfect, but I have at least the idea (more or less), which I can attempt to refine and to apply. One application is the possibility of defining genius, which is usually treated as an ineffable quality of mind. But in view of the character of inspiration as the singular in the sphere of the intellect, genius can be defined as the continual, or near-continual, immersion in the singular. This reminds me of a remark attributed to Blake’s wife, which I may have quoted previously (it is one of my favorite quotes): “I have little of Mr. Blake’s company — he is always in paradise.” This puts the matter succinctly, not to mention personalizing it.

This latter formulation — i.e., genius as the immersion in the singular — begs the question of immersion. I think that degrees of immersion need to be recognized, but that absolute immersion can be given a relatively simple formulation: it is when the mind is so concentrated on a single focus that the remainder of the world is relegated to the periphery. I call this the “undivided mind”. It is a rare but not unknown state of mind. Another formulation is suggested by the extrapolation that I made of the quote attributed to Paul Valéry, namely, to see is to forget the name of of the thing one sees. The idea implicit here can ultimately be pushed beyond the senses to the transcendence of thought itself: to think is to forget the name of the thing one thinks.

The two instances I cited in Interests and Identity, Camus saying near the end of his life that his work had not yet begun and Cézanne also near the end of his life saying that he is making slow progress, are perfect examples of genius utterly immersed in the object of its fascination. Kenneth Clark, in discussing Mozart, mentioned the “single-mindedness of genius.” This is of a piece with these fragments from the life of Camus and Cézanne.

Sören Kierkegaard, passionate Protestant preacher than he was, devoted an entire devotional work to the proposition Purity of heart is to will one thing. Kierkegaard writes in Chapter 3 of this work:

So let us, then, upon the occasion of a time of Confession speak about this sentence: PURITY OF HEART IS TO WILL ONE THING as we base our meditation on the Apostle James’ words in his Epistle, Chapter 4, verse 8: “Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts ye double-minded.” For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him; and only by God’s drawing nigh to them can they maintain this purity. And he who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and he who only wills one thing when he wills the Good can only will the Good in truth.

Let us speak of this, but let us first put out of our minds the occasion of the office of Confession in order to come to an agreement on an understanding of this verse, and on what the apostolic word of admonition “purify your hearts ye double-minded” is condemning, namely, double-mindedness. Then at the close of the talk we may return more specifically to a treatment of the occasion.

What I have above called the undivided mind is here seen as the condition of having transcended double-mindedness — as much a concern for a theologian like Kierkegaard as for a thorough-going naturalist. This famous proposition of Kierkegaard can be given a reformulation much as I reformulated the famous line from Valéry, and Kierkegaard thus extrapolated would run like this: Purity of mind is to think one thing.

The single-mindedness of genius, the immersion of the mind in its object, is the purity of mind that comes from thinking one thing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Purity of Mind is to Think One Thing”

  1. Alice Nielsen said


  2. b said

    I like the picture. I do not have purity in my mind as I can always think about at least 10 things at the time.

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