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The Subconscious Servant

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



HAS it ever occurred to you to inquire who it is that mechanically writes your letters for you while you do the thinking; who plays the notes of the piano or the violin while the musician is intent upon the interpretation; who frequently goes on reading the printed page when your thoughts have wandered far away ? It is the subconscious servant, the eager helper, who performs for us daily a thousand little unrecognized services, saves our lives often by the rapidity of his action, and watches over us with constant care lest, by our own thoughtlessness, we come to any harm the willing assistant, without whose tireless aid we could none of us sup-port the strain of a single day's existence.

The human brain is divided into two entirely separate compartments, which might be compared to the two stories of a mansion, in the upper of which resides the lord and master who does all of the planning and ordering, while the ground floor is inhabited by the well-trained servant, who not only carries out the orders that are telephoned down from above, but, without any direct commands, attends to all the mechanical details of the household, protects the master from outside invasion, and watches over his physical needs—the conscious ego and the subconscious servant. But if the servant is to be a thoroughly capable and intelligent assistant, he must be well and carefully trained; and this fact is so well recognized that the years of our adolescence are mainly devoted to this object.

In order to appreciate how well the work is carried out and how attentively the pupil has listened to his master, you have only to call upon him for, say, the letters of the alphabet or the multiplication table. He will reel them off for you at a rate to make the head spin. He has charge of all the stored-up information of life; he is the guardian of the treasures of memory, and he keeps his treasures all pigeon-holed and tabulated, and ready for the instant service of the master—but upon one condition —that his services be so frequently called upon that his powers do not become atrophied through lack of use. It is not in the simple capacity of a bookkeeper, however, that he serves us best. Having personal charge of all our stores of knowledge and experience, he is able to correlate quickly, and can often hand us in a flash the solution of a problem which the reasoning ego might have taken hours to reach, or might never have been able to reach at all. There are numerous records of cases where mathematicians or other searchers after truth, having labored long and fruitlessly to solve a certain problem, have waked up some morning with the solution clear before them. The little sub-conscious servant had taken the thing up during the night and handed them the answer in the morning. The subconscious never sleeps. It is only the reasoning part of our brains that needs the recuperation of slumber.

Genius is the term by which we designate the man or woman who is gifted with a subconscious nature of unusual power or activity ; for the so-called flashes of genius represent the beautiful and perfect correlations and harmonies that can only be compassed at the source of things, and without the bungling interference of reasoning man. Instinct, intuition, and inspiration are other words which we use to describe this phenomenon, but they all mean the same thing.

There is no man, probably, who has more need of the help of this faithful subconscious servant than the artist, for so many of the mental processes of art must be instinctive. Moreover, in the purely mechanical sense, painters, and especially landscape painters, are peculiarly dependent upon a well-trained memory. When I was a student in Paris a certain celebrated painter was helpful to me in many ways and gave me much good advice. I was in his studio one day, a month or so after his return from a trip in Holland. He placed upon the easel one after another eight finished pictures and showed me a dozen canvases rubbed in with the warm gray which he preferred for an undertone. "Those also are finished," he said ; "all that remains is to put on the color." Each picture represented a different time of day, the effects varying from high noon to midnight. The motives had been stored carefully in the memory and the pictures all painted after the master's return to Paris.

It was a marvellous feat to have carried all these varying effects simultaneously in the mind without con-fusion, and I did not dissimulate my astonishment.

"Well, mon ami," he said, "I discovered when I was quite a youngster that all of the really beautiful effects, the things which I particularly wished to paint, would not wait my pleasure. They were often evanescent moods that lasted but ten minutes at most,—or they were night scenes. So I began to make studies from memory—one little study every day. After five years of this training I found that I could reproduce fairly well any scene which I had been able to study for ten minutes; and now after twenty-five years of practice my memory has become automatic; so that if I fail with any of my canvases it is not because my memory fails me but be-cause of technical difficulties or poor judgment in the selection of the motive. On several occasions I have painted effects seen from the window of a flying train. I should advise you to begin the same kind of study."

I took his advice, and after twenty-five years of the same kind of practice I can at least corroborate his statement in regard to the automatic working of the thoroughly trained memory.

But even where the effect is more lasting, and where a painter might have two or three hours to work direct from nature, I believe that the final picture must always be painted from memory; and I seriously question if any really great landscape was ever wholly painted in the open. A picture painted direct from nature must necessarily be hasty, ill-considered, somewhat raw, and lacking in the synthetic and personal quality which is the distinguishing mark of all great art—unless indeed the work is really done from memory while the painter is standing before nature—which might be the case if he had had time and opportunity to ripen his vision.

Of course one must paint what one sees, but one must see through the mind as well as through the eye. I do not mean by this to assert that young painters can entirely dispense with study direct from nature, or even that the veteran would not do well occasionally to carry his easel into the open air. The student indeed must paint for many years direct from his subject, must pry as closely as ever he can into the secrets of nature; but I would have him at the same time constantly train the subconscious servant, so that when the time comes that his services shall be needed, he will be indeed a "good and faithful servant."

The wonderful synthetic charm of Japanese art is largely due to the universal custom of the Japanese artists of working wholly from memory. Any one who studies their drawings of birds, of fishes, of animals, and of flowers would find it hard to maintain (as I have heard it maintained in regard to memory painting) that they thereby lose the character of the subject. It is only when the memory is deficient or insufficient that this danger arises. A pretty story illustrative of this is told of an American traveller who, while in Tokio, had purchased an embroidered picture of a waterfall which he desired to have appropriately framed before leaving Japan. He was directed to the work-shop of an expert woodcarver, who accepted the commission ; and after consultation a design was selected whose principal decorative motive was the tortoise. Returning in a couple of days, the patron found the artist at work upon the nearly completed frame, which was indeed a beautiful and most artistic creation. While they talked, something stirred among the shavings at the back of the bench. It was a live turtle which had served the carver for a model. The poor man was all blushing confusion.

"The honorable gentleman will pardon me," he said. "I am a simple artisan. Had I been an artist I should not have needed the turtle here to copy from."

One of my own most interesting and illuminating experiences was an inter-view which I once had with an eminent Japanese artist. At the time of my visit he was at work upon a large screen of which the principal motive was a crouching leopard ready to spring. I watched him as with three or four long supple sweeps of the brush he placed the beast upon the silken background, a marvel of sinuous and savage force.

"It is a wonder!" I exclaimed. "How do you do it ?"

Oki smiled.

"In Nippon," he said, "we do not study art in the American way. We don't sit down before a thing and copy it. The master takes his pupils to the cage of the tiger, and he say : `Look at the tiger's leg and the shape of his paws; look at his eyes and the way his ears lie back upon the head ; look at his long body and his sweeping tail; see how he crouches as he walks.' Then we go home and each one makes a drawing, and the master say all those drawings very bad. And the next day we go again to the cage of the tiger and look at the things we do not remember; and we go again the next day, and maybe we go every day for one month, two month, three month—but in the end we know that tiger." And he certainly did know his tiger.



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