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T. S. Eliot on Idea Incubation, Inhibition, and the Mystical Quality of Creativity, Plus a Rare Reading

“We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.”

In this passage from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (public library), cited in the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, celebrated poet, playwright, and cultural critic T. S. Eliot adds to previously explored theories of how creativity works by taking a curious look at how physical illness brings a near-mystical quality of poetry, driven by two key elements of creativity: the presence of an incubation period when unconscious processing of existing ideas takes place, and the removal of habitual inhibitions, or something John Keats has termed “negative capability”.

That there is an analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny … though, as I have said, whether the analogy is of significance for the student of religion or only to the psychologist, I do not know. I know, for instance, that some forms of ill-health, debility or anaemia, may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing — though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating within the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present form a friendly or impertinent demon. What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression, as I have said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden. … This disturbance of our quotidian character which results in an incantation, an outburst of words which we hardly recognise as our own (because of the effortlessness), is a very different thing from mystical illumination. The latter is a vision which may be accompanied by the realisation that you will never be able to communicate it to anyone else, or even by the realisation that when it is past you will not be able to recall it to yourself; the former is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper.

Complement this with a rare recording of Eliot reading his celebrated 1915 stream-of-consciousness poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” found in his Selected Poems:


Minimalist Posters Celebrating Six Pioneering Women in Science

One designer’s homage to Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Grace Hopper, Rachel Carson, and Sally Ride.

Despite what Einstein may have advised a little girl looking to be a scientist but fearing her gender, an enormously important — and heartbreaking — new study has demonstrated that there is, indeed, a tangible, persistent gender bias in science. To blame it all on some great conspiracy by The Man would be, of course, foolish and simplistic — it’s a complex, systemic issue, a significant factor in which is the tragically low visibility of female scientists. Chipping away at a tiny but inspired corner of the problem is cryptically named designer Hydrogene with this fantastic posters series honoring six pioneering women in science — radioactivity researcher Marie Curie (who was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics), physicist and astronaut Sally Ride (the youngest American astronaut and first American woman in space), legendary primatologist Jane Goodall, marine biologist Rachel Carson (whose work was critical in sparking the global environmental movement), British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin (who helped discover and understand the structure of DNA), and computer scientist Grace Hopper (who was instrumental in developing the first computer and first computer programming language).

For a comprehensive and thoughtful overview of the gender issue in science and technology that peers beyond the standard explanations, see Julie Des Jadins’s The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science.

Science Chicks from History


The History of Medicine in 250 Milestones

From witch doctors to human cloning, a visual chronology of the human quest to master health.

Last year, futurist and author Clifford Pickover brought us The Physics Book — a lavish chronology of physics milestones, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), and one of the 11 best science books of 2011. This season, he follows up with The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (public library) — an equally impressive tome inviting us on “a vast journey into the history of medicine that includes eminently practical topics along with the odd and perplexing.” From practical inventions like eyeglasses (1284), condoms (1564), and cochlear implants (1977) and to era-defining innovations like hospitals (1784), the discovery of viruses (1892), and psychoanalysis (1899) to politicized subjects like abortion (70 A.D.), health insurance (1883), and the birth control pill (1955), the short entries, arranged chronologically from 10,000 B.C. (“witch doctor”) to 2008 (“human cloning”), offer a concise introduction and overview of each medical milestone, alongside a full-page image — ranging from an archeological artifact to a Renaissance painting to bleeding-edge photomicroscopy –that captures its essence and cultural significance.

Pickover writes in the introduction:

When colleagues ask me what I feel are the greatest milestones in medicine, I usually offer three events. the first involves the use of ligatures to stem the flow of blood during surgeries, for example, as performed by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590). he promoted ligature (e.g., tying off with twine) of blood vessels to prevent hemorrhage during amputations, instead of the traditional method of burning the stump with a hot iron to stop bleeding. The second key milestone includes methods for decreasing pain through general anesthetics such as ether, attributed to several American physicians. The third breakthrough concerns antiseptic surgery, which was promoted by British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912), whose use of carbolic acid (now called phenol) as a means of sterilizing wounds and surgical instruments dramatically reduced postoperative infections.

The Medical Book comes as a fine complement to Hidden Treasure, which explored 10 centuries of visualizing the human body in medicine, and The Art of Medicine, a 2,000-year visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity.


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