“A Wrinkle in Time” Author Madeleine L’Engle on Self-Consciousness and the Wellspring of Creativity
“When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.”
By Maria Popova
“Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts,” Franz Kafka told a young friend ambivalent about pursuing a creative life. This prayerful quality of art and the free-flowing generosity it presupposes can only arise from a certain self-transcendence, from a place untrammeled by ego and untrapped in a static, contracted self. “The creative self,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful case for the liminal, “[asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance.”
That delicate relationship between self-consciousness and creativity is what A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle (November 29, 1918–September 6, 2007), a woman of abiding wisdom on the creative life, contemplates in Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections (public library) — a collection of meditations drawn from L’Engle’s beloved books and personal writings, arranged like Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and Joanna Macy’s A Year with Rilke, with a short reflection allotted to each day of the year.
In a series of reflections chosen for the last stretch of June, L’Engle echoes the Buddhist admonition against clinging to the “ego-shell” and examines how letting go of the illusion of a static, solid self uncorks creativity:
When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.
A most perilous malignancy of self-consciousness is pride — something Bruce Lee knew when he observed that “the core of pride is self-rejection,” and Agnes Martin knew when she cautioned that pride destroys freedom, joy, and creativity. With a kindred awareness, L’Engle adds:
The Greeks had a word for ultimate self-consciousness which I find illuminating: hubris: pride: pride in the sense of putting oneself in the center of the universe. The strange and terrible thing is that this kind of total self-consciousness invariably ends in self-annihilation. The great tragedians have always understood this, from Sophocles to Shakespeare. We witness it in history in such people as Tiberius, Eva Perón, Hitler.
Creativity, she argues, is the work of absolute unselfconsciousness, for it requires nonjudgmental observation and discovery, with an element of what Jeanette Winterson has so memorably termed “active surrender.” L’Engle writes:
Creativity is an act of discovering. The very small child, the baby, is still unself-conscious enough to take joy in discovering himself: he discovers his fingers; he gives them his complete, unself-conscious concentration.
Writing at a time when psychologists were formalizing this unselfconscious creative state in the concept of flow, L’Engle adds:
The kind of unself-consciousness I’m thinking about becomes clearer to me when I turn to a different discipline: for instance, that of playing a Bach fugue at the piano, precisely because I will never be a good enough pianist to play a Bach fugue as it should be played. But when I am actually sitting at the piano, all there is for me is the music. I am wholly in it, unless I fumble so badly that I perforce become self-conscious. Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.
Because this sense of being “outside self” is so central to creative flow, at the heart of this generative unselfconsciousness is the discipline of holding the self loosely, as the ever-changing constellation of values, beliefs, and habits that it is — for, as the young Borges observed in his fantastic first essay, “there is no whole self.” Echoing philosopher Jacob Needleman’s insight into the path to self-liberation, L’Engle points to what is problematic about simply giving the growing person a ready-made self-image:
I haven’t defined a self, nor do I want to. A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming. Being does mean becoming, but we run so fast that it is only when we seem to stop — as sitting on the rock at the brook — that we are aware of our own isness, of being. But certainly that is not static; for this awareness of being is always a way of moving from the selfish self — the self-image — and towards the real.
Who am I, then? Who are you?
The young Tolstoy considered this very question “the entire essence of life.” The young Emily Dickinson answered it splendidly in a perfect line of verse: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”
Complement Glimpses of Grace with L’Engle on how to get unstuck and her forgotten Library of Congress lecture on creativity, then revisit Walt Whitman on the paradox of the self and mathematician-turned-physician Israel Rosenfield’s pioneering inquiry into how our sense of self arises.
Published January 29, 2018