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The Conscious and the Unconscious in Literature, Art ... and Life

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Evolving Story of the Bipartite Brain

The "bipartite brain" has been for a number of years a centerpoint of my thinking about neurobiological research and its implications for new understandings of what it means to be human.   In recent years, I've begun making a distinction between two different conscious or "story" processes, one closer to inputs from the unconscious and the other farther.  A set of recent conversations in a course on evolution and literature has finally pushed me to the point of making this distinction explicit in a diagram.  Some of the comments that moved me in this direction are given below.  And the new diagram is to the right.

if Whitman was drunk then why should I care about his writing? What should I get out of it? Cause I'd rather avoid the drunk person going into a monologue about a grass, people, etc. I guess I'm just wondering why I should care? What's the point? ... mcurrie

Until this course I have not seriously considered the role of the unconscious mind, but I feel even more skeptical after finishing Leaves of Grass ... Lisa B.

I do not see much use of my own unconscious. I feel that I get more out of learning from being conscious and knowing what is really there than what is in just my head. Although my unconsiousness may be entertaining at times and may provide me with ideas, I do not think that it is useful. I believe something is useful when it brings about progress and change and I do not think I can do that with my unconscious ... I do not think unconsiousness is useful because I do not believe it is real. For me, it is something intangible ... Rica Dela Cruz


The unconscious is at work in our thoughts and behaviors every day, we just don't notice this because it is all happening unconsciously ... A window into this unconscious could lead to a fuller understanding of the self. Whitman's writing attempts to break into this unconscious by writing in a sort of stream of consciousness style capturing scenes that would usually be unconsciously experienced. I appreciate this in his writing as it allows me to experience the unconscious, or as close to it as I can get ... mrmorrison

The focused, ordering structure of the conscious, rational mind scarcely seems capable of competing with the raw, free-associative power of the unconscious mind ... sustainablephilosopher

I've noticed this in the past, that when I read a non-school book, I don't necessarily read with the strict attention I give texts for class, but I end up thinking about them later and find I recall things I don't consciously remember reading ... Is this how Whitman wanted us to read and maybe even see the world? ... L.Kelly-Bowditch

I generally can't generate new ideas when I am concentrating on answering a prompt with extreme intensity. Some of my best papers and some of my best ideas (ha) are those that have come to me when I was at the dining hall or cleaning my room (another ha). I find that when I just let myself think about whatever topics that may come across my mind or allow whatever to just come over me I expose myself to the newest and most profound of ideas ... Tara Raju

even if I don't, myself, understand the meaning of my unconscious creation, the fact that it happened within me and passed through that semi-permeable barrier to my conscious gives me quite a lot to think or be perplexed does Whitman! ... Jackie Marano

Márquez ... writes, “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay” (242) ... My encounter with this novel got me to thinking about how we must face the unreal to notice the real and how we must face the unconscious to realize the conscious. In reading Whitman and Márquez at the same time, I have come to see the meaning in questioning our own thoughts ... That which we do not understand (both outside of and within our own realm of thoughts) tends to offer the greatest space for contemplation; increased ambiguity allows for increased analysis ... Does the ambiguous unknown have more to offer than the coherent known? If so, then maybe the drunkard does in fact have more to offer than the sober person ... rmehta

What our classes are beginning to remind me of, more and more, is the Nietzschean Apollonian and Dionysian split: the difference between rational and irrational, chaos and order, conscious and unconscious, mind and body, and maybe "interpretation" vs "against interpretation"? The Apollonian mindset always attempts to ascribe and create order in the manner that Sontag seems to be against. Whitman seems like a pretty good example of the Dionysian mindset: his poetry is chaotic, frequently jumps from one subject to the next and is written in a free-verse form. He rambles. He declares that he has no problem contradicting himself. He celebrates nature, as well as himself, and he seems to be trying to describe the intuitive. He embraces paradox .... the purpose of our class may be to balance these two mindsets ... sbechdel

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” -Albert Einstein (quoted here)

Siri Hustvedt ... writes “We want a coherent world, not one in bits and pieces.” I wholly agree with this comment but even she wrote with some amount of bits and pieces when developing the characters and their story lines in this piece ... eawhite

Thanks course colleagues, for contributions to where I'm going.  For more on where the course is going ....