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‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Creativity

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”

‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Creativity

“Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well,” Oliver Sacks wrote in outlining the three essential elements of creativity, adding: “This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own.” The richer one’s reservoir of these influences and sources, the more interesting their synthesis into something new would be — something Rilke articulated beautifully a century before Sacks when he contemplated inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity. Albert Einstein intuited this when he described the workings of his own mind as “combinatory play.”

Long before Sacks, Einstein, and Rilke, another genius addressed this abiding question of what it means and what it takes to create: Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851), writing in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (public library) — her trailblazing literary masterpiece that not only furnished a timeless lens on questions of science and social responsibility, but embodied the combinatorial nature of creativity as Shelley transmuted ideas she had absorbed at the science lectures she frequently attended into a visionary work of art.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Echoing her contemporary Ada Lovelace’s insight that invention is a matter of discovering and combining, Shelley writes:

Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

Complement with physicist David Bohm on how creativity works and Patti Smith on listening to the creative impulse, then revisit Rilke on the necessary loneliness of incubation.

BP

Rilke on the Lonely Patience of Creative Work

“Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.”

Rilke on the Lonely Patience of Creative Work

“The most regretful people on earth,” the poet Mary Oliver wrote in contemplating the artist’s task and the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

That is what Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926), another great poet with a philosophical bent and uncommon existential insight, explored a century earlier in the third letter collected in his indispensable Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — the wellspring of wisdom on art and life, which Rilke bequeathed to the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus.

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke’s brother-in-law
Rilke’s first letter to his young correspondent had laid out his core ideas about what it takes to be an artist. Building upon that foundation in the third letter, he echoes his contemporary Franz Kafka’s assertion that “patience is the master key to every situation” and considers the master key to the creative life:

Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!

The patience of making art is a lonely patience — one that demands the solitude essential for creative work, be it art or science, so widely recognized by creators across time and discipline. “Oh comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought!” wrote neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal in considering the ideal environment for intellectual breakthrough. “Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude,” Eugene Delacroix counseled himself as a young artist in 1824. “Solitude, a rest from responsibilities, and peace of mind, will do you more good than the atmosphere of the studio and the conversations,” the young Louise Bourgeois counseled an artist friend in the following century, just as the poet May Sarton was exulting in her sublime ode to solitude: “There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone.”

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions
Rilke articulates this vital incubatory solitude of creative work to his young correspondent in a sentiment of growing poignancy and urgency amid our age of instant and ill-considered opinions:

Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything. Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.

He echoes Goethe’s largehearted, increasingly needed wisdom on the only appropriate response to the creative labors of others and writes:

Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.

Letters to a Young Poet — which also gave us Rilke on what it really means to love, the life-expanding value of uncertainty, and why we read — remains one of the most beautiful, profound, and timeless works ever composed. Complement this particular portion with Rachel Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work and Virginia Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, then revisit Rilke on the nature of creativity.

BP

Pi and the Meandering Paths of Rivers

Einstein, fluid dynamics, and the beautiful mathematics of nature.

Pi and the Meandering Paths of Rivers

“Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads,” Olivia Laing wrote in her stunning meditation on life, loss, and the meaning of rivers. “There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today.” But this chaotic, civilization-strewing mystery may be underpinned by one of the most elemental mathematical truths of nature.

In her splendid ode to pi, the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska extolled it as “the admirable number… nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity to continue.” On the second day of spring in 1996, the Cambridge University earth scientist Hans-Henrik Stølum published a paper announcing his astonishing finding that pi is also nudging, always nudging, the bendy paths of the world’s rivers to continue their seemingly chaotic meanderings — in a mathematically predictable pattern. His simulation, using empirical data and fluid dynamics modeling, found that the oscillating paths of rivers — their sinuosity, calculated by dividing the river’s actual meandering length by the length of the direct line drawn from source to sea — average 3.14.

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams, from Ansel Adams in the National Parks.

Although crowdsourced data failed to replicate Stølum’s average, the crowdsourced sample was too small to prove or disprove a theoretical model addressing the total average of all the world’s rivers. What is more interesting than the finding itself is the very notion that pi — or any number — can undergird seemingly chaotic patterns in nature. Simon Singh takes up this question in his endlessly fascinating book Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem (public library), which also gave us Pythagoras on the purpose of life and the meaning of wisdom.

Citing Stølum’s finding, Singh writes:

The number π was originally derived from the geometry of circles, and yet it reappears over and over again in a variety of scientific circumstances. In the case of the river ratio, the appearance of π is the result of a battle between order and chaos. Einstein was the first to suggest that rivers have a tendency toward an ever more loopy path because the slightest curve will lead to faster currents on the outer side, which will in turn result in more erosion and a sharper bend. The sharper the bend, the faster the currents on the outer edge, the more the erosion, the more the river will twist, and so on. However, there is a natural process that will curtail the chaos: increasing loopiness will result in rivers doubling back on themselves and effectively short-circuiting. The river will become straighter and the loop will be left to one side, forming an oxbow lake. The balance between these two opposing factors leads to an average ratio of π between the actual length and the direct distance between source and mouth.

Complement with the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and mathematician Lillian Lieber on what Euclid can teach us about social justice, then revisit the story of how a Hungarian teenager revolutionized mathematics and equipped Einstein with the building blocks of relativity, without which he would not have been able to make his prediction about the curvature of rivers.

BP

Little Panic: A Literary Laboratory Exploring What It Is Like to Live in the Stranglehold of Anxiety and What It Takes to Break Free

“This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.”

Little Panic: A Literary Laboratory Exploring What It Is Like to Live in the Stranglehold of Anxiety and What It Takes to Break Free

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in the early 1950s, nearly a quarter century before Thomas Nagel’s landmark essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” unlatched the study of other consciousnesses and seeded the disorienting awareness that other beings — “beings who walk other spheres,” to borrow Whitman’s wonderful term — experience this world we share in ways thoroughly alien to our own.

Today, we know that we need not step across the boundary of species to encounter such alien-seeming ways of inhabiting the world. There are innumerable ways of being human — we each experience life and reality in radically different ways merely by our way of seeing, but these differences are accentuated to an extreme when mental illness alters the elemental interiority of a consciousness. In these extreme cases, it can become impossible for even the most empathic imagination to grasp — not only cerebrally but with an embodied understanding — the slippery reality of an anguished consciousness so different from one’s own. Conversely, it can become impossible for those who share that anguish to articulate it, effecting an overwhelming sense of alienation and the false conviction that one is alone in one’s suffering. To convey that reality to those unbedeviled by such mental anguish, and to wrap language around its ineffable interiority for others who suffer silently from the same, is therefore a creative feat and existential service of the highest caliber.

That is what author, Happy Ending Music & Reading Series host, and my dear friend Amanda Stern accomplishes in Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life (public library) — part-memoir and part-portrait of a cruelly egalitarian affliction that cuts across all borders of age, gender, race, and class, clutching one’s entire reality and sense of self in a stranglehold that squeezes life out. What emerges is a sort of literary laboratory of consciousness, anatomizing an all-consuming yet elusive feeling-pattern to explore what it takes to break the tyranny of worry and what it means to feel at home in oneself.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Part of the splendor of the book is the way Stern unspools the thread of being to the very beginning, all the way to the small child predating conscious memory. In consonance with Maurice Sendak, who so passionately believed that a centerpiece of healthy adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” the child-Amanda emerges from the pages alive and real to articulate in that simple, profound way only children have what the yet-undiagnosed acute anxiety disorder actually feels like from the inside:

Whenever I am afraid, worry sounds itself as sixty, seventy, radio channels playing at the same time inside my head. Refrains loop around and around my brain like fast jabber and I cannot get any of it to stop. I know there is something wrong with me, but no one knows how to fix me. Not anyone outside my body, and definitely not me. Eddie [Stern’s older brother] says a body is blood and bones and skin, and when everything falls off you’re a skeleton, but I am air pressure and tingly dots; energy and everything. I am air and nothing.

[…]

My breath flips on its side, horizontal and too wide to go through my lungs.

The grave paradox of mental illness and mental health is that, despite what we now know about how profoundly our emotions affect our physical wellbeing, these terms sever the head from the body — the physical body and the emotional body. A century after William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” Stern offers a powerful corrective for our ongoing cultural Cartesianism. Her vivid prose, pulsating with a life in language, invites the reader into the interiority of a deeply embodied mind that experiences and comprehends the world somatically:

A burning clot of dread develops under my ribcage. One hundred radios are trapped in my head, all playing different stations at once.

Art from Emotional Anatomy: The Structure of Experience

“I was born with a basketball net slung over my top ribs, where the world dunks its balls of dread,” she writes as she channels her young self’s budding awareness that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with her:

The kids around me are carefree and happy, but I’m not, and life doesn’t feel easy for me, ever, which means I’m being a kid in the wrong way.

You can’t see the wrong on my outside, but I wish you could because then my mom would get me fixed. My mom can fix anything; she knows every doctor in New York City.

And so Amanda is put through a series of tests. Although she is so small and slight as to be literally off the height and weight distribution chart for children her age, the medical tests fail to find the locus of her anguish:

I am a growing constellation of errors. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, only that something is, and it must be too shameful to divulge, or so rare that even the doctors are stumped.

Psychological tests follow. “Amanda equates performance with acceptability,” one clinician reports in the original test results punctuating the book like some ominous refrain of wrongness. Then there are the IQ tests. Growing up in an era well before scientists came to understand why we can’t measure so-called “general intelligence,” well before Howard Gardner revolutionized culture with his theory of multiple intelligences, the young Amanda does poorly on the tests — lest we forget, test-taking itself is an immensely anxiety-inducing act even for the average person unafflicted by a panic disorder. Deemed learning-disabled and held back a grade, she reanimates that first school day of her second second year in sixth grade:

The air is fresh, the slight coolness in front of each breeze carrying the smell of change and beginning, except I’m not changing; my worries keep repeating themselves, just like the rest of my life.

Looking back on this disorienting and rather punitive experience, Stern writes:

There was a version of me that felt out of alignment with who I really was. The adults’ version had me learning disabled, and the other version — mine — had me devoured by mental anguish.

It would be more than a decade until that mental anguish is finally correctly diagnosed as a severe panic disorder. But the intervening time — those formative years when one’s sense of self sets in as the child morphs into a young adult — is filled with a growing, gnawing shame of otherness. It takes root in the child’s conscience as she finds herself unable to learn to tell time. Her world is governed not by clocks and calendars but by countdowns tolling her acute separation anxiety — the suffocating dread of being away from her mom:

Away is what time is made of; away is counted in fear-seconds, not number-seconds.

[…]

Time moves everyone forward, but it’s always forgetting to bring me.

Art by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick

Perhaps the most savaging aspect of anxiety is how it kidnaps its victims from the present moment and hurls them into the dungeon of a dread-filled future. Channeling the early experience that becomes an overtone of her young life, she writes:

Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a movie about myself. I am always in the future somehow, separated from my body, and it’s from there I feel sad for the moment I’m living. Soon this moment will be gone; it will turn into another moment that will go, and I think I must be the only person who feels life as though it’s already over. This is the weight I feel every time the sun goes down. No matter how hard I try to stop the feeling, I can’t. Even if I run from it, it meets me wherever I land.

At night, when I’m in bed, I try to hear the house sounds that comfort me: the low mumblings of my siblings, the tamped down warble of the radio, the needle’s skipped return over scratches inside a song, the ceramic clatter of plates being rinsed, and the first turbulent bumps of the dishwasher before it coasts into its varoom lulling hum. My mother’s voice talking on the phone curls its way to my room, and I pull it toward me, past the other sounds, and try to swallow it inside me.

Anxiety warps time and space for this young mind trying to navigate the world’s topography of dread:

When people try to explain that uptown is not far, or that a weekend isn’t long, it makes me feel worse, more afraid that my worries are right, and that the world I live in is different from the world everyone else lives in. That means I’m different, something I don’t want other people to figure out about me. Something is wrong inside me; I’ve always known that, but I don’t want anyone to ever see that I’m not the same as they are.

This sense of being a problem to be solved becomes the dominant overtone of young Amanda’s life, until it swells into the aching suspicion that there may be no solution to it at all — that she is doomed to a life marked by the wrong way of being human:

There is a way to be and I’m not being it, and I don’t know how to change. Is there someone I should be the exact copy of, and they’ve forgotten to introduce me? Or maybe a person is supposed to be a fact, like an answer that doesn’t change, and I’m more like an opinion, which the world doesn’t want?

This terrifying suspicion seeps into the fabric of her being, permeating every aspect of her life. It leads her into confused and conflicted relationships that distort her understanding of love and leave her with a version of the same question:

Is this what real life is then? An endless effort to match the story of yourself someone else tells?

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

When she is finally diagnosed with a panic disorder that gives shape and validity to her lifelong experience, she meets her diagnosis with elated relief. (A century earlier, Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant sister — had articulated that selfsame elation in her extraordinary diary: “Ever since I have been ill, I have longed and longed for some palpable disease, no matter how conventionally dreadful a label it might have, but I was always driven back to stagger alone under the monstrous mass of subjective sensations, which that sympathetic being ‘the medical man’ had no higher inspiration than to assure me I was personally responsible for, washing his hands of me with a graceful complacency under my very nose.”) Stern writes:

I feel weirdly solid, like I’m a valid human being. I didn’t even realize my feelings were categorizable as symptoms. Panic disorder. The air is softer, expansive, as though the world has suddenly opened and is unfolding every opportunity my panic had once ruled out. Every single thing in my life now makes perfect sense: the connections I couldn’t bridge; the choices I couldn’t make; the strange switches the natural world and all its sunsets turned on and off in me.

From this deeply personal experience emerges the universal assurance that what doesn’t kill you makes you more alive. Stern writes:

Over my life I’ve worried so much and feared so many things, and though many of those things actually happened, here I am, still alive, having survived what I thought I couldn’t. I didn’t turn out the way I thought I would: I didn’t get married and I didn’t have kids, and the not-having didn’t kill me either.

[…]

We are all just moments in time, a blink in a trillion-year history, even if our existence sometimes feels endless.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

With an eye to the centrality of anxiety in her own blink of existence, she telescopes to a larger truth about this widespread yet largely invisible affliction that seems a fundamental feature of being human:

When did it start? It started before I was born. It started before my mother was born. It started when friction created the world. When does anything start? It doesn’t, it just grows, sometimes to unmanageable heights, and then, when you’re at the very edge, it becomes clear: something must be done.

Left untreated, anxiety disorders, like fingernails, grow with a person. The longer they go untended, the more mangled and painful they become. Often, they spiral, straight out of control, splitting and splintering into other disorders, like depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia. A merry-go-round of features we rise and fall upon. Separation anxiety handicaps its captors, preventing them from leaving bad relationships, moving far from home, going on trips, to parties, applying for jobs, having children, getting married, seeing friends, or falling asleep. Some people are so crippled by their anxiety they have panic attacks in anticipation of having a panic attack.

I’ve had panic attacks in nearly every part of New York City, even on Staten Island. I’ve had them in taxis, on subways, public bathrooms, banks, street corners, in Washington Square Park, on multiple piers, the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown, the East Village, the Upper East Side, Central Park, Lincoln Center, the dressing room at Urban Outfitters, Mamoun’s Falafel, the Bobst library, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the main library branch, the Brooklyn Library, the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market, laundromats, book kiosks, in the entrance of FAO Schwartz, at the post office, the steps of the Met, on stoops, at the Brooklyn Flea, in bars, at friends’ houses, on stage, in the shower, in queen-sized beds, double beds, twin beds, in my crib.

I’ve grown so expert at hiding them, most people would never even know that I’m suffering. How, after all, do you explain that a restaurant’s decision to dim their lights swelled your throat shut, and that’s why you must leave immediately, not just the restaurant, but the neighborhood? If you cannot point to something, then it is invisible. Like a cult leader, anxiety traps you and convinces you that you’re the only one it sees.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Nikki Giovanni’s remark to James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” Stern adds:

For better or worse, we can only teach others what we understand… Each person begins, after all, as a story other people tell. And when we fall outside the confines of our common standards, we will assume our deficits define us.

[…]

My fear and my conviction were the same: that I was the flaw in the universe; the wrongly circled letter in our multiple-choice world. This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.

Little Panic stands as a mighty antidote to that universal fear. Complement it with Catherine Lepange’s illustrated meditation on anxiety and Seneca’s millennia-old, timeless wisdom on how to tame this psychic monster, then revisit William Styron’s classic masterwork accomplishing for the kindred monster of depression what Stern accomplishes for anxiety.

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