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Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News

“[The artist’s] function is to make his imagination … become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.”

Wallace Stevens on Reality, Creativity, and Our Greatest Self-Protection from the Pressure of the News

“A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote in his timeless treatise on the creative process, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” And yet, paradoxically, in the very act of exposing the abiding instability of existence, art moors us to a sense of the eternal and becalms our momentary tumults against the raging ocean that has always washed, and will always wash, the shoreline of the human spirit. The poet Robert Penn Warren captured this beautifully in his meditation on the vital role of art in a thriving democracy, in which he asserted that art “is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, a society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

A generation earlier, Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879–August 2, 1955), another Pulitzer-winning poet, examined a complementary aspect of the relationship between culture and creativity in his astonishingly timely 1951 book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (public library | free ebook), originally delivered as a lecture at Princeton in 1942 and titled after a line from one of Stevens’s most beloved poems: “I am the necessary angel of earth, / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again, / Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set…”

Wallace Stevens

Stevens controverts the notion that the imagination is a counterpoint to reality and instead insists that the two are in essential interplay:

The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real… There are degrees of the imagination, as, for example, degrees of vitality and, therefore, of intensity. It is an implication that there are degrees of reality.

He points to nobility as a defining characteristic of the imagination — the means by which the creative spirit protects its interior integrity from what he calls “the pressure of reality,” a pressure of immense and almost unbearable intensity today. In a passage of astounding prescience, Stevens writes in the midst of WWII and more than half a century before the present tyranny of the 24/7 news cycle:

By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.

[…]

For more than ten years now, there has been an extraordinary pressure of news — let us say, news incomparably more pretentious than any description of it, news, at first, of the collapse of our system, or, call it, of life; then of news of a new world, but of a new world so uncertain that one did not know anything whatever of its nature, and does not know now, and could not tell whether it was to be all-English, all-German, all-Russian, all-Japanese, or all-American, and cannot tell now; and finally news of a war, which was a renewal of what, if it was not the greatest war, became such by this continuation. And for more than ten years, the consciousness of the world has concentrated on events which have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm. The disclosures of the impermanence of the past suggested, and suggest, an impermanence of the future. Little of what we have believed has been true… It is a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable and eludes the historian. The Napoleonic era is regarded as having had little or no effect on the poets and the novelists who lived in it. But Coleridge and Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen did not have to put up with Napoleon and Marx and Europe, Asia and Africa all at one time. It seems possible to say that they knew of the events of their day much as we know of the bombings in the interior of China and not at all as we know of the bombings of London, or, rather, as we should know of the bombings of Toronto or Montreal.

Photograph by Maria Popova

With an eye to the disorientation of the transitional era in which he is writing — an era perhaps as transitional and disorienting as our own — Stevens examines the familiar helplessness of witnessing reality crumble:

Rightly or wrongly, we feel that the fate of a society is involved in the orderly disorders of the present time. We are confronting, therefore, a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in the mind, beyond our power to reduce them and metamorphose them, but events that stir the emotions to violence, that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real, and events that involve the concepts and sanctions that are the order of our lives and may involve our very lives; and these events are occurring persistently with increasing omen, in what may be called our presence. These are the things that I had in mind when I spoke of the pressure of reality, a pressure great enough and prolonged enough to bring about the end of one era in the history of the imagination and, if so, then great enough to bring about the beginning of another.

The imagination, Stevens argues, is our mightiest survival mechanism in such tumultuous times — those endowed with a great magnitude of it are better able to withstand these crushing pressures of reality:

It is one of the peculiarities of the imagination that it is always at the end of an era. What happens is that it is always attaching itself to a new reality, and adhering to it. It is not that there is a new imagination but that there is a new reality. The pressure of reality may, of course, be less than the general pressure that I have described. It exists for individuals according to the circumstances of their lives or according to the characteristics of their minds. To sum it up, the pressure of reality is, I think, the determining factor in the artistic character of an era and, as well, the determining factor in the artistic character of an individual. The resistance to this pressure or its evasion in the case of individuals of extraordinary imagination cancels the pressure so far as those individuals are concerned.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings and his creative bravery

From this vantage point of the imagination as an antidote to the pressure of reality, he considers the essential existential task of the creative person:

[The artist] must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination… It imperative for him to make a choice, to come to a decision regarding the imagination and reality; and he will find that it is not a choice of one over the other and not a decision that divides them, but something subtler, a recognition that here, too, as between these poles, the universal interdependence exists, and hence his choice and his decision must be that they are equal and inseparable.

A century and a half after John Keats contemplated the three levels of reality, Stevens offers his own taxonomy of reality’s three stages across modern history:

First … there is the reality that is taken for granted, that is latent and, on the whole, ignored. It is the comfortable American state of life of the [eighteen] eighties, the nineties and the first ten years of the [twentieth] century. Next, there is the reality that has ceased to be indifferent, the years when the Victorians had been disposed of and intellectual minorities and social minorities began to take their place and to convert our state of life to something that might not be final. This much more vital reality made the life that had preceded it look like a volume of Ackermann’s colored plates or one of Töpfer’s books of sketches in Switzerland… Reality then became violent and so remains. This much ought to be said to make it a little clearer that in speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive.

While Stevens focuses on poetry, he uses the word “poet” much like James Baldwin did, to connote all artists. But he counters Baldwin’s notion of the artist as “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian” with his own vision of the artist as a sort of emotional or spiritual futurist. Stevens writes:

A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow.

And yet, he argues, the artist must not create out of a mere sense of social duty — any political dimension of art should be a consequence but not a cause:

Reality is life and life is society and the imagination and reality; that is to say, the imagination and society are inseparable… Yes: the all-commanding subject-matter of poetry is life, the never-ceasing source. But it is not a social obligation. One does not love and go back to one’s ancient mother as a social obligation. One goes back out of a suasion not to be denied. Unquestionably if a social movement moved one deeply enough, its moving poems would follow. No politician can command the imagination, directing it to do this or that.

Shortly after William Faulkner proclaimed in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is… to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Stevens considers the ultimate function of the artist:

Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that [the artist’s] function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives.

Photograph by Maria Popova

But alongside this necessary fidelity to reality is also the supreme function of the artist’s imagination — the ability to transcend what is and to envision a different, better version of what could be. (Ursula K. Le Guin would speak to this splendidly in her essay on how our imaginative storytelling enlarges our scope of the possible.) Once again speaking to poetry with insight that applies equally to all creative endeavors, Stevens offers:

The poetic process is psychologically an escapist process… Since what makes the poet the potent figure that he is, or was, or ought to be, is that he creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it and that he gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it.

He returns to the notion of nobility as the central animating force of the imagination. In another passage of acute and almost tragic pertinence to our own time, in which the destructively cynical is routinely replacing the ennobling, Stevens writes:

I cannot be sure that the decline, not to say the disappearance of nobility is anything more than a maladjustment between the imagination and reality… It is not only that the imagination adheres to reality, but, also, that reality adheres to the imagination and that the interdependence is essential.

[…]

The imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely headstrong generation regards as false and decadent. I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth… But there it is. The fact that it is there is what makes it possible to invite to the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence and desire for life.

Stevens concludes with a luminous lens on the supreme duty of creative work, be it poetry or any other form of art:

For the sensitive poet, conscious of negations, nothing is more difficult than the affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that he requires of himself more persistently, since in them and in their kind, alone, are to be found those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy, or ecstatic freedom of the mind, which is his special privilege.

[…]

As a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same… It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

The Necessary Angel is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with this mobilizing modern manifesto for making art in difficult times and poet Elizabeth Alexander on what sets great artists apart, then revisit Baldwin’s timeless meditation on the artist’s responsibility to society.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves

“Literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves

“The imagination,” wrote the trailblazing philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft in a 1794 letter, “is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.” And yet somehow, in the centuries since, we have increasingly lost sight of the imagination’s rapturous rewards and come to see it as a commodity of what we now call “the creative industry” — something calculable and efficient, useful in maximizing society’s comforts and business’s profits. Much as today’s archetypal Silicon Valley characters are pragmatizing Eastern philosophy and ancient meditation practices as tools for “optimizing” their “performance,” the imagination — that pinnacle of our cognitive evolution and seedbed of our core humanity — is being co-opted for purposes that have little to do with animating our sympathies and expanding our hearts.

More than two centuries after Wollstonecraft, Ursula K. Le Guin, another woman of extraordinary intellect and imaginative prowess, sets out to redeem the imagination from the grip of consumerist commodification in a magnificent 2002 lecture titled “Operating Instructions,” later included in Le Guin’s altogether fantastic nonfiction collection Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Le Guin writes:

In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.

I hear voices agreeing with me. “Yes, yes!” they cry. “The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!” In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don’t use it any more, yielding it to capitalists and academics to abuse as they like. But they can’t have imagination.

Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.

Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination:

Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Virginia Woolf considered memory the seamstress that threads our lives together, but it is story — our inner storytelling — that orders memory into a coherent thread; it is story that, as Susan Sontag memorably observed, can “reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.” Our life-paths are paved with story — stretching back, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened to us, why it did, and how it made us who we are; stretching forward, the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible, what we want to achieve, and who we want to become.

In consonance with Rebecca West’s assertion that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity… a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Le Guin considers this essential function of story in sculpting our ability to be at home in the world and its formative role in our becoming:

Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.

[…]

A child who doesn’t know where the center is — where home is, what home is — that child is in a very bad way.

Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova for ‘The Jacket’ by Kirsten Hall. Click image for more.

But that self-invention, Le Guin cautions, is not a solitary act — it takes place at the communal campfire where our essential stories of being are co-created and told. Building on the ideas in her exquisite earlier meditation on telling and listening, she writes:

Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.

[…]

Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.

What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

Reading is a means of listening.

Seven decades after Hermann Hesse made his beautiful case for why we read and always will, however technology may evolve, Le Guin adds:

The technology is not what matters. Words are what matter. The sharing of words. The activation of imagination through the reading of words.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.

Words Are My Matter is a tremendous read in its totality, exploring questions of art, storytelling, gender, freedom, dignity, and what happens when we go to sleep. Complement this particular portion with William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and Ada Lovelace on its two core faculties, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, where good ideas come from, and writing as falling in love.

BP

Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain

Inside the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of a brilliant mind at work.

Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain

“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself,” Oliver Sacks wrote as he reflected on storytelling and the curious psychology of writing. Indeed, what makes his writing so singular and splendid is that it makes the reader feel like she is listening to the inner song of the writer’s very consciousness, where concepts are syncopated, ideas harmonized, and divergent associations strummed into a smooth melody of meaning.

What a privilege, then, to witness the raw rhythm of that consciousness in Dr. Sacks’s notes to himself — the creative sandbox in which he worked out his ideas and sketched the skeletons of what he would later flesh out into essays and entire books.

Oliver Sacks writing in his seventies (Photograph by Bill Hayes from On the Move)

“The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks,” he professes in his indispensable memoir. “It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand.” That miscellany of canvases for informal thought is what I have the grateful chance to share here — a rare glimpse of an extraordinary mind at work, courtesy of Bill Hayes, Dr. Sacks’s partner (who has written beautifully about their love and life together in his memoir Insomniac City), with special thanks to Dr. Sacks’s editor, Dan Frank, and his longtime assistant and collaborator, Kate Edgar, currently heading the Oliver Sacks Foundation and putting together the Oliver Sacks archive of which these papers will one day be a part.

Using whatever paper and writing instrument he had on hand, Dr. Sacks jotted down ideas as they occurred to him — unedited, un-self-censored flights of fancy, captured before they flew away and later domesticated into the thoughtful, exquisitely structured, immensely insightful formal writings for which he is so beloved.

Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph by Lowell Handler from On the Move)
Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Photograph from On the Move courtesy of Kate Edgar)

On a plain piece of legal paper, he ponders the mysteries of consciousness. In a lengthy diary entry snaking around the cartoon airplanes on an airline menu, he records with childlike wonder the thrill of being allowed to go inside the cockpit and marvels at the “hundreds! thousands of dials” inside the “tiny cabin.” On the inside of a folder, he contemplates what it means to be alive. On hotel stationery, he contrasts fancy and imagination. On two loose leaves stapled, he distinguishes between the two modes of creativity.

After countless hours of deciphering his archetypal doctorly handwriting, and with greatly appreciated help from Bill Hayes, I’ve transcribed the most notable of Dr. Sacks’s notes.

In one set of notes — part of what would become “The Creative Self,” one of ten essays in the forthcoming posthumous anthology The River of Consciousness — he appears to be offering a wonderful taxonomy of the two types of creative work: making and birthing, reminiscent of Lewis Hyde’s dichotomy of work vs. labor.

Dr. Sacks characterizes making as “elementary,” “primitive,” “juvenile,” and “pathological,” and birthing as “deep,” “motivated,” “personal,” “not immediate,” and “not conscious,” underlining “theoretical/structural.” Where making is driven by association and memory, birthing “needs ‘incubation'” and is marked by intuition. But before we hasten to assume that he valued the latter type of creative work more highly than the former, he lists Darwin as an example of a writer who makes and Rilke as one who births, which strongly suggests that he saw the two not as a hierarchy but as distinct, complementary forms of creative work — Darwin was, after all, one of Dr. Sacks’s great heroes.

He continues on a second page, contrasting the “quick” and “funny” thought process of making with the “pondering,” “weighing,” “judgment,” and “reflecting” of birthing. Where the former is aimed at “learning,” the latter is “concept-driven” or “self-driven.”

On another page, beside the circled exclamation “the miracle of language,” he considers the eternal question of why writers write, making his own contribution to the canon of excellent answers by writers like Jennifer Egan, W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner. Among his reasons, Dr. Sacks lists:

To:

understand
put in perspective
describe
explain
share
express myself
speak for others
recollect
tell stories
relate
narrate
“fix” in words
find verbal equivalent
define
categorize
generalize
create beauty
seduce
evoke

Next to “fun” and “wit,” he jots down a parenthetical example: “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son” — a line from the memoirs of the great historian Edward Gibbon, which must have impressed itself upon Dr. Sacks’s literary imagination in the course of his lifetime of voracious reading.

In red ink, he adds another set of motives which differs from the first in seeming to be aimed more at the effect of writing than at its cause:

to praise
to condemn
to lament
to thank
to palliate
to reinforce
to solicit

On another piece of paper, he lists the categories of writing under the bold heading “The Writing Life”:

“PIECES”
BOOKS
JOURNALS
THINKS
LETTERS
PATIENT NOTES
PORTRAITS ~ bios
MEMOIR — AUTOBIO.
School or college “essays”

LIMERICKS
APHORISMS
EXHORTATIONS

On the inside of a folder, Dr. Sacks considers what it means to be alive:

Alive — hence universals of activity, organizing, adapting, but equally of individuality, identity, diversity.

He circles in red an insight he perhaps deemed most worthy of preservation and further development:

Organisms are not machines, computers, automata, replicas, factories, “standard models,” or identities (like atoms!).

Opposite it, he contrasts inner concerns (“passion, curiosity, concern, tenacity, audacity”) with the outer ones, among them “community” and two other illegible words. He then lists the encouraged qualities — in all organisms? in humans? in himself? — “adventure, novelty, risk, error, stimulation, support, adventure, freedom.”

On the back of the folder, he further crystallizes these wonderings and ponderings under the heading “Creativity and the Brain”:

The brain is alive, incessantly active, seething — physiologically — from the moment of birth to the moment of death. All brains — of idiots or geniuses, human beings or dogs. This is most evident in unusual/abnormal conditions.

He proceeds to consider the chief function of the brain:

ORDER OUT OF CHAOS. The brain is in an organism which has to negotiate a complex world, from adequate representation of the world. To understand the world — to seek or make meanings — categorize.

On can almost see the characteristic enthusiasm animating his beaming face as he adds, in two different colors for special emphasis:

BUZZING, BLOOMING CHAOS — literally chaos.

On a piece of stationery from the Ritz Carlton in Chicago, Dr. Sacks ponders memory and creativity, contrasts fancy and imagination, and lists as “The Neural Basis”:

Consciousness, creativity, sensibility, talent, personal… identity…

On a page from a yellow legal pad, he pours out, almost fully formed — as Hayes notes Dr. Sacks was apt to do — what would become the following passage in On the Move:

They called me Inky as a boy, and I still seem to get as ink stained as I did seventy years ago.

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs.

On another legal pad page, he jots down a short autobiographical sketch under the title “The Joy of Writing,” reminiscent of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince in its warmhearted contrast between the penchant for writing and the comical incapacity for drawing:

Words came to me early and easily, and I was reading and writing by the age of four or earlier.

On the other hand, I could not (and cannot) draw anything recognizably — my dogs look like insects, my elephants like amoebae. I seem to have almost no voluntary visual imagery. I cannot conjure up scenes of people or animals in my mind. I cannot “see” my parents or the house where I was born. And yet, I am told, my writing is often very “visual” — may call up vivid images in other people’s minds.

And indeed it does — how can one read Dr. Sacks’s vivid descriptions of the island of the colorblind or his vibrant account of nearly dying in a Norwegian fjord without being fully, sensorially transported to those scenes?

Complement with Dr. Sacks’s uncommonly moving memoir of his uncommon life on the move, then join me in donating to the Oliver Sacks Foundation to help make the preservation of his archive possible.

All manuscript photographs courtesy of Bill Hayes

BP

Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead on Work, Leisure, and Creativity

“If we make one criterion for defining the artist… the impulse to make something new… — a kind of divine discontent with all that has gone before, however good — then we can find such artists at every level of human culture, even when performing acts of great simplicity.”

Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead on Work, Leisure, and Creativity

The question of what creativity is and how it can be cultivated has occupied philosophers for millennia and psychologists for a century. But it is only in the last blink of our civilizational history, as industrialization and automation relieved much of the daily brunt of hard labor by which humanity survived for most of its existence, that we came to think of creativity not as a luxury of the privileged few but as an animating presence manifested in one way or another in every human life. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century that German philosopher Josef Pieper could make his elegant case for why leisure is the basis of culture and creativity, before the modern cult of workaholism swiftly pulverized this fragile understanding into dust.

Just as psychology’s most influential study of creativity was gathering momentum at Stanford, the great anthropologist Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) wrote a fascinating and immensely insightful piece titled “Work, Leisure, and Creativity” for the Winter 1960 issue of Daedalus — the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Science, into which Mead was the second woman ever inducted. (The first, nearly a century earlier, was astronomer Maria Mitchell.)

Margaret Mead, self-portrait, age 13 (Library of Congress)

Writing at the blazing dawn of consumer culture — what Adam Curtis would later call “the century of the self” — and a decade before she envisioned a post-consumerist world in her magnificent conversation with James Baldwin, Mead considers the cultural conditioning that to this day imperils our ability to distinguish between productivity and creativity:

I should like first to question the usefulness of the simple dichotomy of work and leisure, with work being those things which man has to do to earn his daily bread, and leisure everything he does with the time that is left over. For if we follow this way of looking at life, peculiar to our own narrow tradition, we are then faced with placing such activities as the worship of the gods, or the performance of a tragedy, in either one category or the other.

Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls during her field work in 1926. (Library of Congress)

Drawing on her anthropological work, Mead notes that cultures like the Balinese have solved this problem with vocabulary, using one word — “a harsh short word” — for the kind of everyday work performed by low-caste people, and another — “an elegant word” — for something performed by high-caste people or for the gods. Half a century after H.P Lovecraft asserted that “amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism,” Mead adds:

An echo of this kind of classification can be found in the English word amateur with its implication that activities which can be performed freely by those whose livelihood comes from some other source, are lowered and tainted if done for gain.

So, we may start with the freedom to pray or carve, act or paint or sing, and end with its degradation or, as the Balinese do, emphasize not whether an activity is for pay or not, but rather who engages in it and under what circumstances.

Remarking on how this “interpenetration of art and life” has confounded visitors to Bali, Mead notes that most Western explanations have been entirely too simplistic and typically romanticized this model of culture as superior to the Western tyranny of the clock. But she points to a different nearby culture as a reminder that any technology is only as good or bad, as limiting or liberating, as the intentions behind its use:

On another South Sea island, Manus, I found in 1928 a people without clocks, without a calendar, with only the simply rhythm of a three-day market and the monthly rush of the fish over the reef, who nevertheless drove themselves from one unrecognized and unmarked year to the next, seeing feasts as harder work than days which had no feasting. To them the white man’s periodicity of hours to start work and hours to stop came as a blessed relief and the Christian Sabbath as a day of undreamed-of rest. They spoke with enthusiasm of the bells which punctuated the hard labor on European-owned plantations: “When the bell sounds at noon you can stop, and you don’t have to work again until the bell sounds to return to work.”

“Catching Fish in a Net,” one of nearly 35,000 children’s drawings Mead collected on her 1928–1929 field trip to Manus. (Library of Congress)

But the most unusual aspect of the Manus was that while they bought and sold artifacts from neighboring tribes, they didn’t participate in the arts themselves. Mead writes:

Each well-described culture provides evidence of the many ways in which activity can be categorized: as virtuous work and sinful play, as dull work when done alone and happy gaiety when the same activity (fishing or hunting or housebuilding) is done in a group, as work when for oneself, and delight when for the gods, or as, at most, pleasant and self-propelled when done for oneself but horrid when done at the behest of the state. There are as many kinds of classification as there have been civilizations, each having its significance for the place of the arts in the life of any particular human group.

Considering how the norms and perspectives of each era dictate the way these concepts are classified, Mead echoes Tchaikovsky’s lament about the difference between creative freedom and commissioned work, and writes:

One significant variable is a sense of freedom: what one does of his own free will must be separated from anything done under coercion, by the need to eat, or survive, or by the will of others. So … planting a garden for food would be work, but done for the pleasure of boasting about the size of one’s cabbages, it becomes leisurely activity.

Mead arrives at the central perplexity of what defines an activity as “creative” and challenges the common definitions, which fail to account for the fact that what is deemed creative often differs from what is merely productive in degree rather than kind and is invariably contingent upon context and circumstance. She examines how different cultures confer the status of artist upon those who make art, illustrating the arbitrary nature of these labels so often divorced from the actual nature of the creative activity and its ultimate effect upon its recipient:

If we take the set of criteria so often used, work to be creative must make something new and something made must not be made too often, or the words “repetitious” and “uncreative” will be introduced. Cooking the daily midday meal is repetitious, but preparing special foods for a feast is creative. This distinction is pleasantly blurred in the house of the rich gourmet; the food that is feat food for the common man becomes daily food for him. His cook then becomes a chef and an artist. The distance from cottage to castle has turned labor into an art.

Still the idea of something made new, and rarely, recurs throughout all the confusing dichotomies and continua of many civilizations. Among one people the slight decoration of every doorway may be a craft, widely practiced, possibly lucrative, slightly honored. But in the next tribe there may be only one man who has the skill and the will to paint a single bark panel with his version of the house decorations of his neighbors. He is not a craftsman; he is instead an artist, occasionally and painfully producing something new — new to him, and new to his fellow tribesmen who cluster around him. Or it is possible to introduce the same slight sense of distance and newness by a device such as that used by the Mundugumor of New Guinea, who had decreed that only a male child born with the umbilical cord around his neck might be an artist. As the tribe was small, and there was no provision that each male child so born be trained as an artist, in the end there would only be one or two men in a generation with the cultural right to paint a design on bark which might have been a common craft, practiced often and unrewarded, among a neighboring tribe.

Mundugumor color painting by Yeshimba, adult male, from Mead’s field work collection (Library of Congress)

A century after Baudelaire argued that all things beautiful have an element of strangeness and a decade after Humphrey Trevelyan’s sublime tribute to Goethe and the “divine discontent” necessary for being an artist, Mead writes:

I should like to propose that we look at this element of freshness, of newness, of strangeness, as a thread along which to place the activities of the consciously creative artist, the conscious patron and critic of the creative artist, and the common man — common in the sense that he has no specified part in creation or criticism. If we make one criterion for defining the artist (as distinct from the craftsman and the trained but routine performer of dance, drama, or music) the impulse to make something new, or to do something in a new way — a kind of divine discontent with all that has gone before, however good — then we can find such artists at every level of human culture, even when performing acts of great simplicity.

Complement with physicist David Bohm on the mechanism of creativity, Arthur Koestler’s pioneering “bisociation” theory of how it works, and Thoreau on the distinction between an artist, an artisan, and a genius, then revisit Mead on the fluidity of human sexuality, her gorgeous love letters, how to raise a family in an uncertain world, why women make better scientists, and her remarkably timely multi-part conversation with James Baldwin about identity and race, forgiveness and the difference between guilt and responsibility, and the future of democracy.

BP

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