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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

Physicist David Bohm on Creativity

“No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings … unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.”

Physicist David Bohm on Creativity

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her exquisite meditation on 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.” The past century has sprouted a great many theories of how creativity works and what it takes to master it, and yet its innermost nature remains so nebulous and elusive that the call of creative work may be as difficult to hear as it is to answer.

What to listen for and how to tune the listening ear is what the trailblazing physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) explores in the 1968 title essay in On Creativity (public library) — his previously unpublished writings on art, science, and originality, edited by Lee Nichol.

davidbohm

Bohm, who maintained a lively affinity for the arts in his forty-five years as a theoretical physicist, argues that the creative impulse in both art and science aims at “a certain oneness and totality, or wholeness, constituting a kind of harmony that is felt to be beautiful.” He writes:

The scientist emphasizes the aspect of discovering oneness and totality in nature. For this reason, the fact that his work can also be creative is often overlooked. But in order to discover oneness and totality, the scientist has to create the new overall structures of ideas which are needed to express the harmony and beauty that can be found in nature.

[…]

The artist, the musical composer, the architect, the scientist all feel a fundamental need to discover and create something new that is whole and total, harmonious and beautiful. Few ever get a chance to try to do this, and even fewer actually manage to do it. Yet, deep down, it is probably what very large numbers of people in all walks of life are seeking when they attempt to escape the daily humdrum routine by engaging in every kind of entertainment, excitement, stimulation, change of occupation, and so forth, through which they ineffectively try to compensate for the unsatisfying narrowness and mechanicalness of their lives.

Illustration from What Can I Be?, a vintage concept book about how creativity works

Creativity, Bohm notes, isn’t a matter of mere talent, for “there are a tremendous number of highly talented people who remain mediocre.” (A century earlier, Schopenhauer made his famous distinction between talent and genius.) With an eye to Einstein — a scientist whose uncommonly creative vision is revolutionizing science a century later — Bohm points out that he possessed something greater than mere talent, for he had many contemporaries who knew more about physics and were better skilled at mathematics than him; what Einstein possessed was a certain quality of originality. Half a millennium after Galileo’s elegant admonition against the peril of clinging to one’s preconceptions, Bohm considers a central demand of originality:

One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees it. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned.

Elizabeth Gilbert has a rather poetic term for this orientation of mind: “a state of uninterrupted marvel.” Bohm argues that we are born with it — a child, for instance, learns to walk by “trying something out and seeing what happens, then modifying what he does (or thinks) in accordance with what has actually happened.” But as we grow older, we become indoctrinated in the standard way of doing things and our originality is gradually blunted as we relinquish the willingness to see alternative ways. Bohm considers what is needed for the conservation of creativity:

The action of learning is the essence of real perception, in the sense that without it a person is unable to see, in any new situation, what is a fact and what is not… But real perception that is capable of seeing something new and unfamiliar requires that one be attentive, alert, aware, and sensitive.

Long before pioneering psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrated this empirically in her trailblazing work on fixed vs. growth mindsets, Bohm articulates a key difference between the creatively fertile and the creatively withered mind:

One thing that prevents us from thus giving primary emphasis to the perception of what is new and different is that we are afraid to make mistakes… If one will not try anything until he is assured that he will not make a mistake in whatever he does, he will never be able to learn anything new at all. And this is more or less the state in which most people are. Such a fear of making a mistake is added to one’s habits of mechanical perception in terms of preconceived ideas and learning only for specific utilitarian purposes. All of these combine to make a person who cannot perceive what is new and who is therefore mediocre rather than original.

In a sentiment which John Cleese would come to echo a quarter century later in his famous assertion that creativity is not a talent but a way of operating, Bohm adds:

The ability to learn something new is based on the general state of mind of a human being. It does not depend on special talents, nor does it operate only in special fields, such as science, art, music or architecture. But when it does operate, there is an undivided and total interest in what one is doing. Recall, for example, the kind of interest that a young child shows when he is learning to walk. If you watch him, you will see that he is putting his whole being into it. Only this kind of whole-hearted interest will give the mind the energy needed to see what is new and different, especially when the latter seems to threaten what is familiar, precious, secure, or otherwise dear to us.

It is clear that all the great scientists and artists had such a feeling for their work.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

In a point of importance which cannot be understated, Bohm asserts that because the nature of originality requires a lively attentiveness to the new and different, pioneers often end up creating entire fields that didn’t previously exist, often at great personal expense. (The history of creative work is strewn with examples, from Van Gogh, who took enormous creative risks only redeemed posthumously, to gravitational astronomy pioneer Joe Weber, who died a tragic hero of science but opened up the brand new field that eventually furnished one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of science.) A decade after artist Ben Shahn’s exquisite case for why nonconformists are society’s engine of growth and greatness, Bohm writes:

Such an opportunity arises in many fields which may at first show little promise, especially because (at least at first) society is not in the habit of recognizing them to be potentially creative. Indeed, real originality and creativity imply that one does not work only in fields that are recognized in this way, but that one is ready in each case to inquire for oneself as to whether there is or is not a fundamentally significant difference between the actual fact and one’s preconceived notions that opens up the possibility for creative and original work… Creativity of some kind may be possible in almost any conceivable field… It is always founded on the sensitive perception of what is new and different from what is inferred from previous knowledge.

From these prerequisites Bohm extrapolates the central orientation of the creative mind in any field:

The creative state of mind … is, first of all, one whose interest in what is being done is wholehearted and total, like that of a young child. With this spirit, it is always open to learning what is new, to perceiving new differences and new similarities, leading to new orders and structures, rather than always tending to impose familiar orders and structures in the field of what is seen.

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Echoing Annie Dillard’s warm wisdom on why a generosity of spirit is the greatest animating force of creative work, Bohm adds:

This kind of action of the creative state of mind is impossible if one is limited by narrow and petty aims, such as security, furthering of personal ambition, glorification of the individual or the state… Although such motives may permit occasional flashes of penetrating insight, they evidently tend to hold the mind a prisoner of its old and familiar structure of thought and perception. Indeed, merely to inquire into what is unknown must inevitably lead one into a situation in which all that is done may well constitute a threat to the successful achievement of those narrow and limited goals. A genuinely new and untried step may either fail altogether or else, even if it succeeds, lead to ideas that are not recognized until after one is dead.

Besides, such aims are not compatible with the harmony, beauty, and totality that is characteristic of real creation.

Above all, Bohm argues, creativity demands the willingness to relinquish even our most dearly held ideas if they are contradicted by experiment and experience:

No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings, either in nature or in society, unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.

In a sentiment of especial poignancy today, in a cultural climate dominated by reaction rather than creative response, Bohm emphasizes that creativity is predicated on rising above our mechanical reactions, which are conditioned by society and by habitual forms of thought, and which render us in “a painful and unpleasant state of dissatisfaction and conflict, covered up by self-sustaining confusion.” He considers the ennobling alternative:

For as long as the individual cannot learn from what he does and sees, whenever such learning requires that he go outside the framework of his basic preconceptions, then his action will ultimately be directed by some idea that does not correspond to the fact as it is. Such action is worse than useless, and evidently cannot possibly give rise to a genuine solution of the problems of the individual and of society.

[…]

If one is serious about being original and creative, it is necessary for him first to be original and creative about reactions that are making him mediocre and mechanical. Then eventually the natural creative action of the mind may fully awaken, so that it will start to operate in a basically new order that is no longer determined mainly by the mechanical aspects of thought… Just as the health of the body demands that we breathe properly, so, whether we like it or not, the health of the mind requires that we be creative.

[…]

But, of course, to awaken the creative state of mind is not at all easy. On the contrary, it is one of the most difficult things that could possibly be attempted. Nevertheless, for the reasons that I have given, I feel that it is for each of us individually and for society as a whole the most important thing to be done in the circumstances in which humanity now finds itself.

The orientations of mind and spirit most conducive to doing that — in science, in art, and in all domains of human life — is what Bohm goes on to examine in the remainder of the thoroughly awakening On Creativity. Complement it with pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six pillars of creativity and Leonard Cohen on its mystique, then revisit Bohm on what is keeping us from listening to one another, how our perceptions shape our reality, and his magnificent conversation with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti about intelligence and love.

BP

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