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Literary reactions to the political climate

Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible. What makes the situation of contemporary poets particularly surprising is that it comes at a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art. There have never before been so many new books of poetry published, so many anthologies or literary magazines. Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet. There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary levels.

Congress has even instituted the position of poet laureate, as have twenty-five states. One also finds a complex network of public subvention for poets, funded by federal, state, and local agencies, augmented by private support in the form of foundation fellowships, prizes, and subsidized retreats. There has also never before been so much published criticism about contemporary poetry; it fills dozens of literary newsletters and scholarly journals. The proliferation of new poetry and poetry programs is astounding by any historical measure.

Just under a thousand new collections of verse are published each year, in addition to a myriad of new poems printed in magazines both small and large. No one knows how many poetry readings take place each year, but surely the total must run into the tens of thousands. And there are now about graduate creative-writing programs in the United States, and more than a thousand undergraduate ones. With an average of ten poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20, accredited professional poets over the next decade.

From such statistics an observer might easily conclude that we live in the golden age of American poetry. But the poetry boom has been a distressingly confined phenomenon. Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward.

Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture. To adapt Russell Jacoby's definition of contemporary academic renown from The Last Intellectuals , a "famous" poet now means someone famous only to other poets. But there are enough poets to make that local fame relatively meaningful. Not long ago, "only poets read poetry" was meant as damning criticism.

Now it is a proven marketing strategy. The situation has become a paradox, a Zen riddle of cultural sociology. Over the past half century, as American poetry's specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry's institutional success—the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university—have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.

To the average reader, the proposition that poetry's audience has declined may seem self-evident. It is symptomatic of the art's current isolation that within the subculture such notions are often rejected. Like chamber-of-commerce representatives from Parnassus, poetry boosters offer impressive recitations of the numerical growth of publications, programs, and professorships. Given the bullish statistics on poetry's material expansion, how does one demonstrate that its intellectual and spiritual influence has eroded? One cannot easily marshal numbers, but to any candid observer the evidence throughout the world of ideas and letters seems inescapable.

Daily newspapers no longer review poetry. There is, in fact, little coverage of poetry or poets in the general press. From until this year the National Book Awards dropped poetry as a category. Leading critics rarely review it. In fact, virtually no one reviews it except other poets. Almost no popular collections of contemporary poetry are available except those, like the Norton Anthology , targeting an academic audience.

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It seems, in short, as if the large audience that still exists for quality fiction hardly notices poetry. One can see a microcosm of poetry's current position by studying its coverage in The New York Times. Virtually never reviewed in the daily edition, new poetry is intermittently discussed in the Sunday Book Review , but almost always in group reviews where three books are briefly considered together.

Whereas a new novel or biography is reviewed on or around its publication date, a new collection by an important poet like Donald Hall or David Ignatow might wait up to a year for a notice. Or it might never be reviewed at all. Poetry reviewing is no better anywhere else, and generally it is much worse.

The New York Times only reflects the opinion that although there is a great deal of poetry around, none of it matters very much to readers, publishers, or advertisers—to anyone, that is, except other poets. For most newspapers and magazines, poetry has become a literary commodity intended less to be read than to be noted with approval. Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around—not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition's sake. Arguments about the decline of poetry's cultural importance are not new.

In American letters they date back to the nineteenth century. But the modern debate might be said to have begun in when Edmund Wilson published the first version of his controversial essay "Is Verse a Dying Technique? In particular, Romanticism's emphasis on intensity made poetry seem so "fleeting and quintessential" that eventually it dwindled into a mainly lyric medium. As verse—which had previously been a popular medium for narrative, satire, drama, even history and scientific speculation—retreated into lyric, prose usurped much of its cultural territory.

Truly ambitious writers eventually had no choice but to write in prose. The future of great literature, Wilson speculated, belonged almost entirely to prose. Wilson was a capable analyst of literary trends. His skeptical assessment of poetry's place in modern letters has been frequently attacked and qualified over the past half century, but it has never been convincingly dismissed. His argument set the ground rules for all subsequent defenders of contemporary poetry.

It also provided the starting point for later iconoclasts, from Delmore Schwartz to Christopher Clausen. The most recent and celebrated of these revisionists is Joseph Epstein, whose mordant critique "Who Killed Poetry? Not coincidentally, Epstein's title pays a double homage to Wilson's essay—first by mimicking the interrogative form of the original title, second by employing its metaphor of death.

Epstein essentially updated Wilson's argument, but with important differences. Whereas Wilson looked on the decline of poetry's cultural position as a gradual process spanning three centuries, Epstein focused on the past few decades. He contrasted the major achievements of the modernists—the generation of Eliot and Stevens, which led poetry from moribund Romanticism into the twentieth century—with what he felt were the minor accomplishments of the present practitioners.

The modernists, Epstein maintained, were artists who worked from a broad cultural vision. Contemporary writers were "poetry professionals," who operated within the closed world of the university. Wilson blamed poetry's plight on historical forces; Epstein indicted the poets themselves and the institutions they had helped create, especially creative-writing programs. A brilliant polemicist, Epstein intended his essay to be incendiary, and it did ignite an explosion of criticism.

No recent essay on American poetry has generated so many immediate responses in literary journals. And certainly none has drawn so much violently negative criticism from poets themselves. To date at least thirty writers have responded in print. The poet Henry Taylor published two rebuttals. Poets are justifiably sensitive to arguments that poetry has declined in cultural importance, because journalists and reviewers have used such arguments simplistically to declare all contemporary verse irrelevant. Usually the less a critic knows about verse the more readily he or she dismisses it.

It is no coincidence, I think, that the two most persuasive essays on poetry's presumed demise were written by outstanding critics of fiction, neither of whom has written extensively about contemporary poetry. It is too soon to judge the accuracy of Epstein's essay, but a literary historian would find Wilson's timing ironic.

Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, H. Hilda Doolittle , Robert Graves, W. Auden, Archibald MacLeish, Basil Bunting, and others were writing some of their finest poems, which, encompassing history, politics, economics, religion, and philosophy, are among the most culturally inclusive in the history of the language. Hope, and others, was just breaking into print. Wilson himself later admitted that the emergence of a versatile and ambitious poet like Auden contradicted several points of his argument. But if Wilson's prophecies were sometimes inaccurate, his sense of poetry's overall situation was depressingly astute.

Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life. Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture. One sees evidence of poetry's diminished stature even within the thriving subculture.

The established rituals of the poetry world—the readings, small magazines, workshops, and conferences—exhibit a surprising number of self-imposed limitations. Why, for example, does poetry mix so seldom with music, dance, or theater? At most readings the program consists of verse only—and usually only verse by that night's author.

Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author's ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author. Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don't publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage.

One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines' contributors. The indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a monster of the opposite kind—journals that love poetry not wisely but too well. Until about thirty years ago most poetry appeared in magazines that addressed a nonspecialist audience on a range of subjects.

Poetry vied for the reader's interest along with politics, humor, fiction, and reviews—a competition that proved healthy for all the genres. A poem that didn't command the reader's attention wasn't considered much of a poem. Editors chose verse that they felt would appeal to their particular audiences, and the diversity of magazines assured that a variety of poetry appeared. The early Kenyon Review published Robert Lowell's poems next to critical essays and literary reviews.

The old New Yorker celebrated Ogden Nash between cartoons and short stories. A few general-interest magazines, such as The New Republic and The New Yorker , still publish poetry in every issue, but, significantly, none except The Nation still reviews it regularly. Some poetry appears in the handful of small magazines and quarterlies that consistently discuss a broad cultural agenda with nonspecialist readers, such as The Threepenny Review , The New Criterion , and The Hudson Review.

But most poetry is published in journals that address an insular audience of literary professionals, mainly teachers of creative writing and their students. Many more have negligible readerships. But size is not the problem. The problem is their complacency or resignation about existing only in and for a subculture. What are the characteristics of a poetry-subculture publication? First, the one subject it addresses is current American literature supplemented perhaps by a few translations of poets who have already been widely translated. Second, if it prints anything other than poetry, that is usually short fiction.

Third, if it runs discursive prose, the essays and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. If it publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them. Quite often there are manifest personal connections between the reviewers and the authors they discuss. If occasionally a negative review is published, it will be openly sectarian, rejecting an aesthetic that the magazine has already condemned.

The unspoken editorial rule seems to be, Never surprise or annoy the readers; they are, after all, mainly our friends and colleagues. By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art. Since there are too many new poetry collections appearing each year for anyone to evaluate, the reader must rely on the candor and discernment of reviewers to recommend the best books.

But the general press has largely abandoned this task, and the specialized press has grown so overprotective of poetry that it is reluctant to make harsh judgments. In his new book, American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity , Robert Bly has accurately described the corrosive effect of this critical boosterism:. A clubby feeling also typifies most recent anthologies of contemporary poetry. Although these collections represent themselves as trustworthy guides to the best new poetry, they are not compiled for readers outside the academy. More than one editor has discovered that the best way to get an anthology assigned is to include work by the poets who teach the courses.

Compiled in the spirit of congenial opportunism, many of these anthologies give the impression that literary quality is a concept that neither an editor nor a reader should take too seriously. The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets , for example, is not so much a selective literary collection as a comprehensive directory of creative-writing teachers it even offers a photo of each author.

Running nearly pages, the volume presents no fewer than important young poets, virtually all of whom teach creative writing. The editorial principle governing selection seems to have been the fear of leaving out some influential colleague. The book does contain a few strong and original poems, but they are surrounded by so many undistinguished exercises that one wonders if the good work got there by design or simply by random sampling.

In the drearier patches one suspects that perhaps the book was never truly meant to be read, only assigned. And that is the real issue. The poetry subculture no longer assumes that all published poems will be read. Like their colleagues in other academic departments, poetry professionals must publish, for purposes of both job security and career advancement. The more they publish, the faster they progress. If they do not publish, or wait too long, their economic futures are in grave jeopardy. In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters.

Some authors survive on the basis of a single unforgettable poem—Edmund Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose," for example, or Edwin Markham's "The Man With the Hoe," which was made famous by being reprinted in hundreds of newspapers—an unthinkable occurrence today. But bureaucracies, by their very nature, have difficulty measuring something as intangible as literary quality. When institutions evaluate creative artists for employment or promotion, they still must find some seemingly objective means to do so.

As the critic Bruce Bawer has observed,. Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee.

Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable. The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past thirty years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers.

And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public. The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining a polite hypocrisy. Millions of dollars in public and private funding are at stake. Luckily, no one outside the subculture cares enough to press the point very far.

No Woodward and Bernstein will ever investigate a cover-up by members of the Associated Writing Programs. The new poet makes a living not by publishing literary work but by providing specialized educational services. Most likely he or she either works for or aspires to work for a large institution—usually a state-run enterprise, such as a school district, a college, or a university or lately even a hospital or prison —teaching others how to write poetry or, on the highest levels, how to teach others how to write poetry.

To look at the issue in strictly economic terms, most contemporary poets have been alienated from their original cultural function. As Marx maintained and few economists have disputed, changes in a class's economic function eventually transform its values and behavior. In poetry's case, the socioeconomic changes have led to a divided literary culture: the superabundance of poetry within a small class and the impoverishment outside it.

One might even say that outside the classroom—where society demands that the two groups interact—poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms. The divorce of poetry from the educated reader has had another, more pernicious result. Seeing so much mediocre verse not only published but praised, slogging through so many dull anthologies and small magazines, most readers—even sophisticated ones like Joseph Epstein—now assume that no significant new poetry is being written.


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This public skepticism represents the final isolation of verse as an art form in contemporary society. The irony is that this skepticism comes in a period of genuine achievement. Gresham's Law, that bad coinage drives out good, only half applies to current poetry. The sheer mass of mediocrity may have frightened away most readers, but it has not yet driven talented writers from the field.

Anyone patient enough to weed through the tangle of contemporary work finds an impressive and diverse range of new poetry. Adrienne Rich, for example, despite her often overbearing polemics, is a major poet by any standard. One might also add Sylvia Plath and James Wright, two strong poets of the same generation who died early. Without a role in the broader culture, however, talented poets lack the confidence to create public speech. Occasionally a writer links up rewardingly to a social or political movement.

Rich, for example, has used feminism to expand the vision of her work. Robert Bly wrote his finest poetry to protest the Vietnam War. His sense of addressing a large and diverse audience added humor, breadth, and humanity to his previously minimal verse. But it is a difficult task to marry the Muse happily to politics. Consequently, most contemporary poets, knowing that they are virtually invisible in the larger culture, focus on the more intimate forms of lyric and meditative verse.

And a few loners, like X. Kennedy and John Updike, turn their genius to the critically disreputable demimonde of light verse and children's poetry. Therefore, although current American poetry has not often excelled in public forms like political or satiric verse, it has nonetheless produced personal poems of unsurpassed beauty and power. Despite its manifest excellence, this new work has not found a public beyond the poetry subculture, because the traditional machinery of transmission—the reliable reviewing, honest criticism, and selective anthologies—has broken down.

The audience that once made Frost and Eliot, Cummings and Millay, part of its cultural vision remains out of reach. Today Walt Whitman's challenge "To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too" reads like an indictment. To maintain their activities, subcultures usually require institutions, since the general society does not share their interests.

Nudists flock to "nature camps" to express their unfettered life-style. Monks remain in monasteries to protect their austere ideals. As long as poets belonged to a broader class of artists and intellectuals, they centered their lives in urban bohemias, where they maintained a distrustful independence from institutions.

Once poets began moving into universities, they abandoned the working-class heterogeneity of Greenwich Village and North Beach for the professional homogeneity of academia. At first they existed on the fringes of English departments, which was probably healthy. Without advanced degrees or formal career paths, poets were recognized as special creatures.

They were allowed—like aboriginal chieftains visiting an anthropologist's campsite—to behave according to their own laws. But as the demand for creative writing grew, the poet's job expanded from merely literary to administrative duties. At the university's urging, these self-trained writers designed history's first institutional curricula for young poets.

Creative writing evolved from occasional courses taught within the English department into its own undergraduate major or graduate-degree program. Writers fashioned their academic specialty in the image of other university studies. As the new writing departments multiplied, the new professionals patterned their infrastructure—job titles, journals, annual conventions, organizations—according to the standards not of urban bohemia but of educational institutions.

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Out of the professional networks this educational expansion created, the subculture of poetry was born. Initially, the multiplication of creative-writing programs must have been a dizzyingly happy affair. Poets who had scraped by in bohemia or had spent their early adulthood fighting the Second World War suddenly secured stable, well-paying jobs. The debate about the unconscious is virtually unique in the history of ideas, insofar as it has frequently transgressed the two cultures divide: the concept of the unconscious has been explored by writers, poets and artists, as well as physicians, neurologists, and philosophers of science.

Indeed, discussion about the unconscious has been almost promiscuous in its failure to recognize or respect interdisciplinary boundaries. Although the concept of the unconscious has achieved an extraordinary degree of cultural penetration, in academic circles, it has been falling in and out of favour for nearly three hundred years.

Recently, this cycle has been repeated.

Georg [György] Lukács

At the beginning of the 20th century, Freud promoted the unconscious as one of the most important of all scientific discoveries. By the mid 20th century, the unconscious had lost much of its currency among academic psychologists, and those with an interest in it were viewed with considerable suspicion. Yet, because of several advances — most notably in computer technology, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory — the unconscious has recently become re-established as a respectable, necessary, and essential concept. Indeed, its ascent has been so rapid, and the consolidation of its position so comprehensive, it is difficult to imagine the unconscious ever falling from academic favour again.

The modern history of the unconscious begins with the posthumous publication in of New Essays on Human Understanding, by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In this work, Leibniz described the mind as a marriage of conscious and unconscious parts, and suggested that behaviour could be influenced by what he called minute perceptions — that is, perceptions that occur outside of awareness.

This idea was not welcomed by Enlightenment thinkers, who preferred to think of the mind as wholly transparent and rational. Indeed, they suggested that the workings of the mind could be profitably compared with a table clock — numerous examples of which were beginning to appear in the fashionable salons of Europe. Leibniz had broken ranks with The Age of Reason. His doctrine of minute perceptions strongly suggested that human beings could behave irrationally, and subsequently, his precocious enquiry into unconscious mental life was rejected and then more or less neglected for over a hundred years.

Towards the end of the 18th century, however, the rise of Romanticism resulted in a complete revision of Enlightenment values, and the reintroduction of the unconscious as a key idea among those with an interest in the mind. For the Romantic poets, the human psyche was clearly something far more complex than a table clock and infinitely more mysterious. Once this conceptual leap had been made it was inevitable that some would want to go there. The Romantic model of mind offered the prospect of Orphean journeys into a psychic underworld, and the favoured method of achieving this descent was to imbibe laudanum a preparation of opium diluted in wine or brandy.

With the conscious, rational mind in a state of narcotic paralysis, any subsequent experiences must reflect activity in the unconscious. Thus, the visions of the opium addict — as well as the dreams that occur during natural sleep — both became strongly associated with unconscious mental life. The association between the unconscious and dreams was reinforced by Romantic philosophers such as Gotthilf von Schubert, who in published The Symbolism of Dreams, and later, Karl Albert Scherner, who in published The Life of the Dream. Both of these men were advocates of dream interpretation, although Scherner in particular — like De Quincey — pre-empted psychoanalytic thinking by suggesting that certain objects such as a clarinet or staircase might represent the male and female genitalia.

By the mid 19th century, the unconscious was relatively well established. It could be understood as a level of the mind at which mental processes operated outside awareness, or an inner landscape that could be experienced as a dream. Three other phenomena also helped to consolidate the concept of the unconscious. These were hypnotism, medical observations of multiple personality, and the burgeoning Spiritualist movement.

Post-hypnotic suggestion showed that a command given to an individual in a trance state might still be carried out after waking, even though typically such an individual would have no recollection of that command. Thus, a post-hypnotic suggestion might be viewed as an instruction hidden in the unconscious. Cases of multiple personality represented this same phenomenon but writ large.

Instead of a simple command being hidden in the unconscious, it was suggested that a whole secondary personality might be concealed the primary personality having no knowledge of the secondary personality and its activities. The possibility that the mind could accommodate several — usually unconscious — sub-personalities, was immediately welcomed by the scientific community as an explanation for Spirit Guides.

The belief that the human mind might conceal a secondary, or even several unconscious personalities proved irresistible to writers. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In all of these works, a protagonist encounters — as either a doppelganger, alter ego, or image — a manifestation of his darker, unconscious self; however, as the concept of the unconscious was becoming more mysterious and strange, another view was beginning to emerge: a cooler, less dramatic view.

In , Benjamin Carpenter a professor of physiology at University College, London , observed that volition seems to play a very minor role in the execution of simple behaviours. About the same time, the great T. This post-industrial, mechanistic view of the unconscious might well have caught on, were it not for the arrival of a monumental figure who claimed the unconscious as his own, and gave the Romantic unconscious an unexpected new lease of life: Sigmund Freud.

It is often said that more words have been written about Sigmund Freud than Jesus Christ. He has become an icon. Yet, in some circles, Freud continues to be decried — particularly with respect to his ideas about the unconscious sexual origins of neurotic illness and its treatment by psychoanalysis. Libraries have been written — and continue to be written — on the subject of why Freud was wrong; however, the longevity and energy of this enterprise is somewhat surprising. Indeed, in the s and s, sustained criticism from the likes of the psychologist, Hans Eysenck, and the philosopher, Adolf Grunbaum, helped to complete an iconoclastic process that destroyed the academic credibility of Freudianism altogether — and the unconscious suffered by association.

The psychoanalytic framework is sufficiently elastic to accommodate almost any observation — thus, it can never be decisively invalidated. Freud can explain everything, and in doing so, explains nothing. Freud, and generations of his disciples, have always maintained that psychoanalytic theory is supported by clinical evidence. That is, the behaviour of patients and their subsequent response to treatment. But very few in the scientific community have been convinced by this defence. Popper advanced falsifiability as a criterion for demarcating science and non-science — not sense and nonsense.

Moreover, he was happy to concede that although psychoanalytic theory might not be testable on the couch, it might nevertheless become testable in the fullness of time. Firstly, there can be little doubt that psychoanalytic theory has proved to be of considerable importance. And secondly, psychoanalytic ideas — or at least some of them, have not proved impenetrable with respect to scientific investigations. For example, with the advent of brain scanning technology, there have been several attempts at linking brain structures with Freudian concepts. In a review of neuroimaging studies of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder OCD , Lewis Baxter and colleagues were bold enough to suggest that repression might take place in a brain structure known as the caudate nucleus.

Thus, the intrusive, id-like thoughts — on themes of sex and violence — that often plague individuals with OCD might be due to a dysfunctional caudate. Although the marriage of 19th century psychology with 20th century technology seems strange at first sight, it is only strange because of the way Freud has been represented — more like a shaman than a man of science. Freud trained as a neurologist and would have been delighted to see his concepts investigated with neuroimmaging technology. He rescued it from the obscure backwaters of philosophy, psychiatry, and mesmeric stage shows, and branded it for general consumption.

After Freud, the idea of a submerged agency — or hidden intelligence — that might reveal its motives in dreams, became widely accepted, and by the time the critics were landing their most powerful punches on the body of psychoanalysis, the Freudian unconscious was already an established feature of cultural life. Copernicus had delivered the first, depriving humanity of a central place in the cosmos, and Darwin had delivered the second, by proving our animal ancestry. Freud believed that by emphasizing the importance of unconscious processes in mental life, he had delivered the third and most wounding blow: our most valued characteristics — free will, rationality, and a sense of self — are mere illusions, and we are all the products of unconscious and uncontrollable forces.

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Yet, in this respect, most contemporary neuroscientists would agree that Freud was very probably right. Freud did not discover the unconscious. Nevertheless, Freud recognized that the unconscious was an extremely important feature of mental life, and that no model of the mind would be complete without it. Although Freud saw human behaviour as wholly determined by unconscious processes, the clues that he identified — in Freudian slips, primitive drives, and mental illness — when followed through the neurological labyrinth, invariably lead us to a landscape of erotic symbols, temporal anomalies, and impossible physics.

A world of dreams and hidden intelligences not unfamiliar to the likes of Coleridge and De Quincey. There is no place in this Romantic gloaming for the insensible reflexes and concealed automata of Carpenter and Huxley. In many respects, the Romantic unconscious — through Freudianism — remained dominant until the war; however, after the invention of the computer, psychology was provided with a new metaphor that revolutionized models of how the mind works.

And as a direct consequence, the unconscious was completed rehabilitated for the machine age. The suggestion that a machine, composed of mere insensible components, might generate something like human consciousness raised some interesting issues. For example, could the brain — also composed of individually insensible nerve cells — work in a similar way? The mechanical, enabling unconscious of Carpenter and Huxley had reappeared again, after a seventy year dormancy. The sub-discipline of psychology devoted to the study of basic mental process is called cognitive psychology.

After the invention of the computer, almost all cognitive psychologists were happy to employ the computer as a metaphor. Thus, all forms of mental activity were construed as examples of information processing, and unconscious activity was relabeled preconscious processing. Numerous experiments were devised to examine the degree to which information could be processed without awareness. Typically, this was achieved by presenting experimental subjects with messages or images at speeds or intensities too fast or too weak for conscious registration and then observing subsequent effects.

A considerable amount of evidence was collected suggesting that thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and even dreams, could be influenced by subliminal stimulation. Unfortunately, this whole area of research suffered a major set-back, when a marketing executive in New Jersey claimed to have increased the sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola in a cinema by placing subliminal messages on a film reel. The subsequent furore created a climate of opinion in which laboratory studies using subliminal perception were considered manipulative and politically suspect for at least two decades.

Interestingly, another subliminal scandal erupted during the last presidential election, when Democrats accused George W. Bush of endorsing a television advert containing subliminal messages. Irrespective of the general unease surrounding subliminal stimulation, the procedure was important in demonstrating the existence of what came to be called the cognitive unconscious — a close relative of the kind of unconscious espoused by theorists like Carpenter and Huxley: however, even if the new look unconscious operated like a computer and simply shunted information through a series of processing stages, it still seemed capable of behaving intelligently.

For example, it could read and understand a subliminal message. Therefore, it might be argued that the hidden intelligence of the Romantic and Freudian unconscious still maintained a presence in mid to late 20th century psychology — but simply repackaged for modern tastes. The concept of the unconscious has always struggled to achieve scientific respectability, but never more so than in the decades following the second World War.

The modern world was not eager to embrace a concept developed by Romantic poets — associated with hypnosis, Spiritualism, and exotic sub-personalities — and latterly linked with the worse excesses of the Freudian obsession with sex. Moreover, if Libet began stimulating the cortex, but stopped before a half second had elapsed, patients would report nothing. These observations suggested that it took half a second milliseconds for activity in the brain to reach awareness. Or, to express this in the new language of cognitive psychology: every experience is preceded by a half second of preconscious processing.

Libet administered mild shocks to the back of the hand , and averaged the chart readings. The subsequent brain wave showed a very early response — within milliseconds i. Libet had succeeded in plotting preconscious processing on a graph — a shallow arc, climbing towards consciousness.