Modern Trends in the Arts Reveal the Development of a Subjective Standpoint

As in every other field of human endeavour, the arts were undergoing tremendous changes in the West during the 20th Century as realism in art gave way to various movements that tried to identify and represent deeper vital or spiritual forces at work behind the material surfaces of things.  Expressionism, impressionism, cubism, abstract art, and various other forms of the visual arts worked to explore feelings, emotions or hidden energies beneath or behind the surface of man.  Similar movements led to modern forms of music as the mathematical and precise forms of the late 18th and the 19th century receded.  Artists such as Matisse, Renoir, Klee, Picasso, Chagall, van Gogh struggled to find the meaning behind and being expressed through material forms.  Writers such as Joyce, Kafka, Blake, Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Hesse, explored the deeper ranges of human motivations and searched for the roots of the forces that drove men to act as they did.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The art, music and literature of the world, always a sure index of the vital tendencies of the age, have also undergone a profound revolution in the direction of an ever-deepening subjectivism.  The great objective art and literature of the past no longer commands the mind of the new age.  The first tendency was, as in thought so in literature, an increasing psychological vitalism which sought to represent penetratingly the most subtle psychological impulses and tendencies of man as they started to the surface in his emotional, aesthetic and vitalistic cravings and activities.”

“But to this movement which reached its highest creative power in Russia, there succeeded a turn towards a more truly psychological art, music and literature, mental, intuitional, psychic rather than vitalistic, departing in fact from a superficial vitalism as much as its predecessors departed from the objective mind of the past.  This new movement aimed like the new philosophic Intuitionalism at a real rending of the veil, the seizure by the human mind of that which does not overtly express itself, the touch and penetration into the hidden soul of things.  Much of it was still inform, unsubstantial in its grasp on what it pursued, rudimentary in its forms, but it initiated a decisive departure of the human mind from its old moorings and pointed the direction in which it is being piloted on a momentous voyage of discovery, the discovery of a new world within which must eventually bring about the creation of a new world without in life and society.  Art and literature seem definitely to have taken a turn towards a subjective search into what may be called the hidden inside of things and away from the rational and objective canon or motive.”

Sri Aurobindo himself, in his epic poem Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, became a leading light in this new direction towards a subjective literature as he has described here.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 3, The Coming of the Subjective Age, pp. 30-31


The Beginning Signs of a Transition from the Age of Reason to a Subjective Age

Just as the Age of Reason began as a revolt from and a correction for the conventional age that preceded it, at a certain point in the last century, it became clear to more and more people that the reliance on intellectual efforts and the attempt to organize life based on principles of scientific efficiency or economic systems were not sufficient nor entirely satisfying.  Philosophers, psychologists and thinkers came along espousing concepts of getting in touch with ones deeper vital nature, which was aligned with Nature, and restoring a dynamism to a life otherwise regimented and controlled by a dogmatic adherence to “sound principles of economics”.  Charles Dickens, in his book Hard Times explored the weaknesses of the intellectual control of the education and life activities of people and opened up the concept that there was a life-energy, that had passion, emotion and vitality that must be cultivated to bring about a more true life.  Philosophers such as Nietzsche and Bergson asked us to get in touch with this deeper vitality.  C G. Jung pioneered advances in the field of psychology to try to contact and utilize deeper vital forces in the being that exercised power over the surface life and the intellectual reactions.  Many explored avenues to free the mind from the control of the strict reasoning intelligence and find new powers to guide and invigorate the life.  Some went in the direction of mysticism, others in the direction of various drug experiences, some chose religious disciplines, meditation or vision quests.  All of this represents a move away from the age of intellectual individualism toward a more inward, subjective period of discovering or rediscovering either the roots of life, or the relation of the individual to the evolutionary process of Nature.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “…their emergence and greater dominance means the transition from the rationalistic and utilitarian period of human development which individualism has created to a greater subjective age of society.  The change began by a rapid turning of the current of thought into large and profound movements contradictory of the old intellectual standards, a swift breaking of the old tables. ”

“These tendencies of thought, … were not a mere superficial recoil from intellectualism to life and action, — although in their application by lesser minds they often assumed that aspect; they were an attempt to read profoundly and live by the Life-Soul of the universe and tended to be deeply psychological and subjective in their method.  From behind them, arising in the void created by the discrediting of the old rationalistic intellectualism, there had begun to arise a new Intuitionalism, not yet clearly aware of its own drive and nature, which seeks through the forms and powers of Life for that which is behind Life and sometimes even lays as yet uncertain hands on the sealed doors of the Spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 3, The Coming of the Subjective Age, pp. 29-30

The Analytical Reasoning Power Cannot Comprehend the Depths of Existence

The rational analytical mind is a power that has been of tremendous value in the understanding of the physical world and processes.  The modern world has become very much dependent on the operation of this power.  It has its limitations, however, due to subtlety and complexity at the deeper levels of existence that cannot be accurately or completely understood or codified by this power.  The analytical reason relies first on the limits of the sense perceptions upon which it operates.  Even when the sense data is extended through technology, it remains limited.  Second, the operations of the material world are based on forces and activities on other levels that can only be inferred or interpreted, not directly seen, and thus, error can creep in through failures of understanding or interpretation.  Third, the reason tries to extrapolate from what it thinks it knows to what is unseen or outside of its sphere of knowledge–it cannot possibly therefore understand forces or levels of activity in the universe that may operate on totally different principles than those with which it is familiar in the material world.  There are also issues of perspective such as caused much of humanity to believe that the sun moved around the earth for long millennia.  With the development of quantum physics, the rational approach loses its ability to make any kind of judgment with findings such as that the fact of observation changes the observed event, or that in some cases future events can change the results of the past.  It is clear that principles other than those of the human reason can comprehend are active.  Modern day science is now positing that not only is all matter actually energy, but that all energy is consciousness, bringing it to the edge of the spiritual understanding.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “For in his study of himself and the world he cannot but come face to face with the soul in himself and the soul in the world and find it to be an entity so profound, so complex, so full of hidden secrets and powers that his intellectual reason betrays itself as an insufficient light and a fumbling seeker; it is successfully analytical only of superficialities and of what likes just behind the superficies.  The need of a deeper knowledge must then turn him to the discovery of new powers and means within himself.  He finds that he can only know himself entirely by becoming actively self-conscious and not merely self-critical, by more and more living in his soul and acting out of it rather than floundering on surfaces, by putting himself into conscious harmony with that which lies behind his superficial mentality and psychology and by enlightening his reason and making dynamic his action through this deeper light and power to which he thus opens.  In this process the rationalistic ideal begins to subject itself to the ideal of intuitional knowledge and a deeper self-awareness; the utilitarian standard gives way to the aspiration towards self-consciousness and self-realisation; the rule of living according to the manifest laws of physical Nature is replaced by the effort towards living according to the veiled Law and Will and Power active in the life of the world and in the inner and outer life of humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 3, The Coming of the Subjective Age, pg. 29

The Physical World and Its Characteristics Cannot Explain All of Existence

The individualistic age of humanity developed the approach of Science to bring forth a new view and standpoint for humanity in its attempt to comprehend human life and the world within which we live.  Physical science, mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy all worked to explore the world we live in, and understand its laws, processes and relationships.  Eventually however, even an exclusive focus on the physical principles of life are found insufficient and the search must turn inward, to the study of the vital and mental processes, and finally to a recognition that consciousness informs the universe and creates the physical world and physical laws rather than the other way round.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “But after a time it must become apparent that the knowledge of the physical world is not the whole of knowledge; it must appear that man is a mental as well as a physical and vital being and even much more essentially mental than physical or vital.  Even though his psychology is strongly affected and limited by his physical being and environment, it is not at its roots determined by them, but constantly reacts, subtly determines their action, effects even their new-shaping by the force of his psychological demand on life.  His economic state and social institutions are themselves governed by his psychological demand on the possibilities, circumstances, tendencies created by the relation between the mind and soul of humanity and its life and body.  Therefore to find the truth of things and the law of his being in relation to that truth he must go deeper and fathom the subjective secret of himself and things as well as their objective forms and surroundings.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 3, The Coming of the Subjective Age, pp. 28-29

The Meaning of the Individualistic Age in the Evolutionary Process of Humanity

Whether it be in the field of religion, economics, political science, art, science or any other field of focus within which man attempts to understand and relate to the world and his role in that world, the direction and focus of the individualistic age is to challenge conventional forms and thinking, and discover a living truth that is hidden within those conventions.  This is essentially a process of breaking down the old ways of doing things and finding new directions that speak to the developing need of humanity within the framework of the evolutionary thrust of Nature.  Eventually, any honest search for individual meaning recognises that each individual is part of an interconnected web of life and thus, the search for individual fulfillment eventually must also encompass a balanced and harmonious interaction with the entire system.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The individualistic age is, then, a radical attempt of mankind to discover the truth and law both of the individual being and of the world to which the individual belongs.”

“…from that first step it must proceed to others and in the end to a general questioning of the foundations of thought and practice in all the spheres of human life and action.  A revolutionary reconstruction of religion, philosophy, science, art and society is the last inevitable outcome.  It proceeds at first by the light of the individual mind and reason, by its demand on life and its experience of life; but it must go from the individual to the universal.  For the effort of the individual soon shows him that he cannot securely discover the truth and law of his own being without discovering some universal law and truth to which he can relate it.  Of the universe he is a part; in all but his deepest spirit he is its subject, a small cell in that tremendous organic mass: his substance is drawn from its substance and by the law of its life the law of his life is determined and governed.  From a new view and knowledge of the world must proceed his new view and knowledge of himself, of his power and capacity and limitations, of his claim on existence and the high road and the distant or immediate goal of his individual and social destiny.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 3, The Coming of the Subjective Age, pp. 27-28

The Evolutionary Necessity for an Age of Reason and Critical Thought

An age that focuses on critical analysis, insight and thought, an age that challenges established modes and ways of living and thinking, is naturally an age of discomfort for those who live in such times.  Conventional lines of thought and action are comforting to people, and they provide everyone a fixed understanding of their role in society and their goals for life.  When individuals begin to challenge these conventions and fixed habits of thinking and living, they are frequently harassed, treated as outcastes, imprisoned, tortured or killed.  With the advent of an age of reason and individualism, many people begin to question the assumptions of the societal order at all levels, and disruption can occur in many directions.  We see a weakening of the authority of the Church or the government, we see social mores brought into question.  Those who are satisfied with their lives and the conventions that cocoon them wonder why such disruptions need to occur.

Sri Aurobindo describes the essential nature and importance of such periods for human development and the evolutionary pressure of the Time-Spirit:  “A temporary reign of the critical reason largely destructive in its action is an imperative need for human progress.  In India, since the great Buddhistic upheaval of the national thought and life, there has been a series of recurrent attempts to rediscover the truth of the soul and life and get behind the veil of stifling conventions; but these have been conducted by a wide and tolerant spiritual reason, a plastic soul-intuition and deep subjective seeking, insufficiently militant and destructive.  Although productive of great internal and considerable external changes, they have never succeeded in getting rid of the predominant conventional order.  The work of a dissolvent and destructive intellectual criticism, though not entirely absent from some of these movements, has never gone far enough; the constructive force, insufficiently aided by the destructive, has not been able to make a wide and free space for its new formation.  It is only with the period of European influence and impact that circumstances and tendencies powerful enough to enforce the beginnings of a new age of radical and effective revaluation of ideas and things have come into existence.”

“It has compelled the national mind to view everything from a new, searching and critical standpoint, and even those who seek to preserve the present or restore the past are obliged unconsciously or half-consciously to justify their endeavour from the novel point of view and by its appropriate standards of reasoning.  Throughout the East, the subjective Asiatic mind is being driven to adapt itself to the need for changed values of life and thought.  It has been forced to turn upon itself both by the pressure of Western knowledge and by the compulsion of a quite changed life-need and life-environment.  What it did not do from within, has come on it as a necessity from without and this externality has carried with it an immense advantage as well as great dangers.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 3, The Coming of the Subjective Age, pp. 26-27

The Need of Developing Humanity Is to Evolve Beyond Old Forms to Express the Truth of the Spirit

For the awakening individual in the time of fixed conventions, the fossilized forms into which the understanding of mankind is bound must be broken down in order to discover or rediscover the truth of life and the purpose of one’s existence.  Some are guided to find the ancient sources and ancient truths and bring them back to life; others recognise that humanity cannot recapture some glorious past but must build on the platform of the present and continue moving forward, growing, expanding and widening the understanding of the truth in more complete and comprehensive ways.  Sri Aurobindo reminds us that looking backward may well open us to those ancient truths, but the pattern already built within humanity would then tend to take us down the same path to the dead conventionalized forms that had to be overcome in the first place.

“It would seem at first that the shortest way would be to return to the original ideas themselves for light, to rescue the kernel of their truth from the shell of convention in which it has become incrusted.  But to this course there is a great practical obstacle; and there is another which reaches beyond the surface of things, nearer to the deeper principles of the development of the soul in human society.  The recovery of the old original ideas now travestied by convention is open to the practical disadvantage that it tends after a time to restore force to the conventions with the Time-Spirit is seeking to outgrow and, if or when the deeper truth-seeking tendency slackens in its impulse, the conventions re-establish their sway.  They revive, modified, no doubt, but still powerful; a new incrustation sets in, the truth of things is overlaid by a more complex falsity.  And even if it were otherwise, the need of a developing humanity is not to return always to its old ideas.  Its need is to progress to a larger fulfilment in which, if the old is taken up, it must be transformed and exceeded.  For the underlying truth of things is constant and eternal, but its mental figures, its life forms, its physical embodiments call constantly for growth and change.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 3, The Coming of the Subjective Age, pg. 26