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David Bohm, Paul Cézanne and Creativity

Somehow or another I keep coming back to Cézanne. He fascinates me. I stand before his paintings trying to figure out what is going on, attempting to enter into a dialogue, wondering what questions the paintings are asking me. Some years ago I even camped out on Mont Ste-Victoire, the favourite motif of the painter. Recently I visited it again, driving along the road that links Aix en Provence with the little town of Puyloubier— which has an excellent restaurant—stopping to see all the places where Cézanne had painted. On the way back, I noticed a small hotel part way up the mountain and decided to stay the night. Instead of a view across the valley, I chose a room at the back which looked out on the mountain. In the night I was awakened to see that great ‘sail in the sky’ glowing luminously. In the end it became too much for me, I simply did not have the intensity of Cézanne’s vision. I could not sustain my encounter with the mountain as he did.

This essay is about Cézanne but it also about David Bohm. Cézanne had, I believe, the vision of a scientist. He was always questioning, always seeking truth. In this he was one of a kind with David Bohm who said that we must seek truth, no matter where it takes us. One truth that Bohm sought was the underlying order that would unite quantum theory and relativity. It was not a matter of some new mathematics, or a new theory, he would say, but of a radically different order. It was during a long correspondence with the painter, Charles Biederman, who had written The New Cézanne, that Bohm learned that Cézanne was also struggling to find a new order, a new order for painting. In the end Bohm came to realize that these two orders are deeply related. For Cézanne, to touch even a small part of one of his paintings would mean repainting the entire canvas. In Bohm’s terms this was the Implicate Order—the whole is enfolded in every part and each part is enfolded in the whole.

As a very young man David Bohm had a vision of the transcendent, of an intense light that could stretch across the universe, of a light so bright that it formed a new colour, light so intense that it would penetrate matter. Also of energy, energy that could destroy worlds, of whirlwinds and tornados, of penetrating acids, highly active chemicals, chemicals that would excite the brain. And of a universe that exists in a higher dimension.

The images were always taken from science. (Indeed, Bohm at that time believed implicitly in the power of science to control nature and transform human society.) Yet on the other hand, light, vortexes of fluid, energy are all metaphors for the subtle, for that which lies beyond surface appearance, for that which can enter into them. His visions are not uncommon with the mystics—after all Jacob Böhme’s (1575-1624) first great illumination came from staring at light reflected in a pewter plate

As with any image of such a numinous power it has a multiplicity of meanings. Freud suggested that such images are ‘overdetermined,’ Carl Jung called them archetypes and spoke of the powerful forces that can be unleashed when one is in thrall of an archetype. The ancient Greeks spoke of a divine intoxication, of giving oneself to the gods. These images could be taken to refer to the primal forces of the natural world, to the penetrating power of the human intellect, to the realm of the subtle, to unconditioned creativity, to what is called ‘the spirit,’ or even to the breath of God. And we must remember that although Bohm did not subscribe to any orthodox religion, in his early life he was raised in the Jewish faith and learned of the God that cannot be named.

I mentioned the Greek notion of possession and maybe this is not too bad a way to describe Bohm for the one possessed becomes ‘enthused’ but always at a price; when the gods departed, they could leave Bohm in a deeply depressed state—one must remember Nietzsche who believed he was possessed by Zarathustra which gave him moments of intense illumination and passion but finally robbed him of his mental balance. I’m not saying this was the case with Bohm. His had a fine mind, yet I think his work took him beyond the personal intellect and left him open to what lies beyond—the unknown, the unconditioned, the pure intelligence of the universe, an act of grace, a pure passion.

And if he was possessed, then maybe it was by those twin gods that haunt western civilization—and, at the time of the Greeks, were named Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo being order, classicism, balance and harmony. Dionysus, the divine intoxication, the transcendence of rules and order, ‘inspiration.’ Maybe those gods used Bohm as their testing ground and, through him, contemporary science.

As a young man Bohm may have dreamed of new scientific theories, and have used his political views of, for example, individual human freedom and the need for a socialist collective, to guide him towards his theory of the plasma in which individual behaviours are made possible by the existence of the collective (shielding long range interactions) and the collective by virtue of the existence of the individual. But later Bohm began to see that new theories, new ideas and hypotheses were simply not enough, what was called for was a new order.

At one level this represented a new scientific order, one that was demanded by the revolutions of quantum theory and relativity. These represented dramatic changes for science, ways, Bohm pointed out, that brought us closer to the way we actually perceive and experience the world than the physics of Newton. Nevertheless, although the theories have changed, the old order remains—most significant was what Bohm termed the Cartesian order of space and time, an order I personally associate with something prior, the vision of space inherent in perspective. In placing the viewer outside the universe, limiting him or her, freezing time, we are presented with a single ‘objective’ vision of the world. Earlier art was filled with time and movement and the viewer was free to enter into it. So, for me, the Cartesian order is one of the ways in which the human participator has been excluded from the universe.

Bohm was clear that there could be no reconciliation of relativity and quantum theory until this new order (of space and time) had been discovered. The new order had to be prior to any theoretical advance in physics. Part of what he meant by the new order was the Implicate Order, and the notion of an infinity of levels to reality, each being qualitatively different from what lies above and below. An order that is never reductionistic, for processes within the orders below can give rise to manifestations at higher orders and these higher orders, in turn, condition those that lie below.

Bohm even went so far as to suggest that a new order called for a new language, a new means of expression. Our present language, he said, stresses the separation between objects and their independence. His rheomode would begin with pure process and activity out of which would emerge, at a secondary level quasi-independent objects localized in space and time.

But this is far more than Bohm’s call for a new order than what is inherent in a new scientific revolution, for Bohm came to see the world as wholeness and process—this is even inherent in a scientific theory he developed as a schoolboy. It is truly a ‘theory of everything,’ matter, process, space, time and even consciousness.

For Bohm a new order was also a new order to human society, comparable to the transformation of order that took place in the early Middle Ages. It would be a new order of mind and matter, of matter and the subtle, of thought and what lies beyond. A new order implied a transformation of human consciousness, not simply at the level of the mind but of the brain and body itself. As he often said, a change of meaning is a change of being. Transform individual consciousness and the consciousness of humanity is changed; transform consciousness and the physical brain is modified. Produce a radical change of order and consciousness and it reaches deeply into the world of matter, transforming DNA and even possibly changing the status of the material world—and I don’t think I am distorting Bohm in taking things this far.

In this Bohm may not be too far from the ancient Kabbalists and Alchemists who participated in the Great Work as a means of renewal, of placing oneself in correspondence to the moment of creation, of naming, of breathing the animating spirit. Or of the Sun Dance of the Plains which is a ceremony, a sacrifice, and a social renewal for the whole of creation. Or of the medicine wheel, the prayers at sunrise, the sacred circle and pipe. They are all ways of expressing our participation in the ongoing processes of creation and renewal.

Now in taking things this far I begin to see how Bohm had become a part of a very general movement of renewal that, I believe, is taking place in our own time and began maybe sometime in the last century. It is an attempt to bring humanity back into the universe, to assume our responsibilities and obligations. To make room for love and compassion in the face of nature. If Bohm approached this from the perspective of the sciences, asking questions about the structure of space and time, of the meaning of matter, light and energy, of moving from object to process, then I believe that very similar investigations are taking place in the fields of art and music.

It is fairly obvious that from the time of Cézanne, artists have been struggling to find new orders; but this also implies a questioning of the whole meaning and function of art, of the role of the subjective and objective. I believe that there are some truly radical questions being explored that have many parallels with what is going on in science. When the sculptor Antony Gormley and I were discussing the nature of art I mentioned Umberto Eco’s vision of aesthetics in the Middle Ages, that it was not pure egotistical creation and self-expression of an individual but rather the artist assisting nature. That seemed to strike a chord with Gormley for sculpture was acceptance of the natural, of matter and the human body. It was entering into the space within the body and using that as the starting point for sculpture. It was seeking ways to define space in relationship to the human body and the architecture in which it lives—a space within and a space without. So space becomes relationship; relationship based within the sensation of the body—thinking not far from Bohm’s. And not far from Cézanne’s either whose new order in painting came out of the sensations of the body.

There is another point I wish to make and that is, in seeking a new order, Bohm saw this as very much involving the fact of his existence within the material world. This again I see as a symptom of our return to nature, the reanimation of nature and accepting human responsibility towards nature and our own fact of existence.

Indeed, Bohm argued that there are two ways to discover the laws of nature. One was by looking outward at the laboratory and the other was by looking inward for, as he said, his body was created out of the same matter as the universe. Indeed, there were times when, thinking about scientific equations, he would notice sensations in his body. He spoke to Einstein about this who told him that while he was working on the field equations for general relativity, he used to squeeze a rubber ball and feel the tensions in his muscles.

I believe that much of Bohm’s thinking took place at this level, a level at which mind and matter are indivisible. It is not so much the brain that is thinking, that is stringing along sets of words—the constant internal chatter we all experience—but that the entire body is involved through subtle muscular movements which then unfold into thoughts. Or rather the body movements become ordered, or that an internal body process takes place which can then partly manifest itself in intuitions and perceptions. These then become symbolized as thoughts and ideas—and the intellect then has the job of filling in the gaps and producing a new order—an order appropriate to, for example, the English language or mathematical algebras. Bohm accepted that his body was a microcosm of the macrocosm and so the order of the universe was manifesting itself within his body. Using the language of his Implicate Order, the whole lay implicit in each part and was therefore present in an implicate way within his body.

The discipline of years of studying physics, developing particular sensitivities and skills, enabled him to partly unfold these sensations. It is clear to me that the deepest ‘thinking’/intuiting takes place at this level. Cézanne said something very similar to Bohm:

The Landscape becomes reflective, human and thinks itself though me. I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting… I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and my painting becomes its objective consciousness.

I am becoming more lucid before nature, but always with me the realization of my sensations is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses… Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place by turning now more to the right, now more to the left.

I have also read about David Hockney designing sets for opera, playing the music and experimenting until at some point the colour glows or takes on some numinous quality. This has been described as ‘synesthesia,’ which I feel is another word for having access to deep body experiences which can be made manifest though years of training and coordination. In this sense we are very similar to Cézanne’s vision of his ‘sensations’ and nature thinking itself through the medium of our bodies.

Creativity becomes nature singing her own songs. The scientist and artist become assistants, coworkers with nature. Nature seeks new ways to express herself through human society and human skills. In turn we seek to celebrate nature though acts of renewal.

Having said that, I also want to touch on a darker side. In many ways Cézanne had a miserable life; his painting was always a terrible struggle and he signed very few paintings to indicate that his vision had been ‘realized.’ He was seen as rude and intransigent. He hated to be touched to the point where it cost him his life. After going out to paint and getting soaked to the skin, he collapsed in the road of a fever, his female servant being too frightened to pick him up. Several days later he died.

Realizing his sensations was a terrible struggle for Cézanne; ‘the realization of my sensations is always painful.’ In some senses the search for a new order was similarly a struggle for Bohm. The reason, I believe, is that these ‘sensations’ lie very deep, at what Jung called the ‘psychoid’ which was ‘neither matter nor mind and both.’ They are levels tied to our deepest conditioning and earliest experiences of the world. Those artists and scientists who struggle to discover new orders must enter that world and it involves, I believe, a very painful sacrifice that can almost destroy the individual.

Activating these sensations may also mean activating incredibly painful emotions and memories. Bohm Cézanne and Bohm suffered from a difficult relationship with their fathers. Bohm would speak to me of painful tensions within the body, being connected to early memories and feelings that had become locked within his physical body.

To take a different tack, Jean Piaget pointed out that when science seeks deeper and deeper levels of reality and abstraction—as, for example, when we move from practical geometry, to Euclid, to topology, to cohomology, to abstract algebras—we are, in fact, excavating both the history of human thought and, in reverse, the development of cognition at the earliest stages of life. To be a Bohm or an Einstein is to touch one’s very earliest perceptions of the world and these can be bound up with painful sensations. Some lie at the purely personal level of an individual’s history, some are to do with the particular society in which one is reared, others are universal archetypes.

When I stand in front of Cézanne, I feel these painful conflicts and struggles very clearly. It is a world away from Fra Angelico or Matisse. Some are able to make the passage in art or science or any other field; others can be almost destroyed by it. I think that this is something we are all struggling with in our present time.

I spoke of sensing a common purpose and a desire for a new compassionate order, of something that unifies the natural and the transcendental. I feel it is present in the visual arts, music, and science. At another level it can be a powerful antidote for what I see as a flight from matter in our present society and a desire to escape into the world of spirit. I find it disturbing when people speak of the escape of the human spirit from the confines of matter. Rather I prefer alchemical renewal in which the spirit is refined and then returns to the womb of matter in an act of sacrifice and renewal (and here the metaphors may be getting a little mixed.)

In summation, Bohm sought a new order within physics. It becomes an entire new order for life and society. For myself I would not so much seek a transformation of human consciousness for that seems a little one-sided—too much spirit and not enough matter—but rather a renewal of our position within the universe.

I find the vision of Islamic alchemy very attractive at this point. The classical alchemists were not so much concerned with the creation of gold but with inner work. When transformation occurred, when the mirror of the heart was polished and cleansed, when the veils were lifted, at that point one had a radically different vision of the material world. Base matter was truly transformed because one saw it anew and that each thing was filled, to its capacity, with the divine. But then, since all things are one, all things are connected, at the moment of cleaning, of perception and opening of vision, the world of matter itself becomes changed, renewed, and transformed. It is no longer the same as before. So the transformation was mutual; when the interior changes so does the exterior. (Again I believe that something similar happens in art and that there is a true transformation both at the level of perception and material realization, one that cannot be explained in mechanistic terms alone.)

It is at this point that the work of the artist, the scientist and the medieval alchemist become the same. It is about our role in the transformation and renewal of nature, the manifestation of the divine. Bohm’s search for a new order in physics goes right back to his earliest visions and his dream that human society could change and become more compassionate.

Author bio

F. David Peat, PhD, was a quantum physicist, writer, and teacher who founded the Pari Center in 2000. He wrote more than 20 books which have been translated into 24 languages, as well as numerous essays and articles. In 1971-72, he spent a sabbatical year with Roger Penrose and David Bohm, and thereafter his research focused on the foundations of quantum theory and on a non-unitary approach to the quantum measurement problem. Peat continued an active collaboration with Bohm and in 1987 they co-authored the book Science, Order and Creativity. In 1996 he published Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm. In 2020, the documentary that he co-wrote with Paul Howard Infinite Potential The Life and Ideas of David Bohm was released. David Peat died in 2017 and the film is dedicated to his memory.