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What Am I Doing?

James Gallant, writer, reflects on the psychology of creativity.

I have been writing fiction, prose-poetry, and essays for a long time now, whenever the business of staying alive has allowed. I have published quite a lot, including four books (well, three now, one having been delisted by its publisher for lack of sales). I do not self-publish.

My wife, an attentive reader of what I write, is also an excellent judge of it, for better or worse. A thumbs up from her means something, although I can’t think of our relationship in this without recalling the aged lighthouse keeper and his wife in Ionesco’s 1952 play The Chairs, who pass the time making up various scenarios, including arranging chairs to seat the distinguished guests coming to hear the old man present his ‘message to the world’.

If I announce on Facebook that something of mine has been published, non-literary relatives and acquaintances, for whom publication seems to be something like winning the lottery, will offer their mandatory congratulations. That is not, of course, the same as their reading what I have written. However, “No prophet is taken seriously in his home town”, as one translation of Jesus’s remark would have it. It’s even less likely that a writer of serious fiction would be taken as serious by their acquaintances. Non-readers have always outnumbered readers, of course. But my impression at the moment is that writers outnumber readers.

I have not profited from my literary efforts materially in any significant way. Serious dedication to authorship, or to the arts generally, is unlikely to have practical consequences of a happy kind, as everyone working in this sector knows. Ego-boosting rewards of a less material kind have actually been rather paltry, too. When an editor publishes something you’ve written, gives you a thumb’s up – ‘one of those’, as comedian Rodney Dangerfield (who never got any) used to say – it is nice; and seeing what one has written all gussied up in print, or online, evokes a joyous little frisson – which vanishes like fog on a warm morning.

I was walking in my Atlanta neighborhood recently when a man I’d never met, sitting on his front porch, called out, “Are you James Gallant?” “Yes,” I replied. He said he’d had read one of my books and thought it brilliant. That was nice, and I thanked him. But I never expect compliments, and, not dependent on them, they bounce right off me.

This is all unusual. It’s not like human beings to be so indifferent to rewards that bolster them, materially or otherwise. So what am I up to? Jorge Luis Borges, in his Book of Imaginary Beings (1957) incorporated the image propounded in 1791 by Wang Tai-Hai, of a monkey on the back of a working writer that is content only once it has drunk a sufficient quantity of ink. I know the feeling; but what is it about ink-drinking that’s so satisfying?

Harmony of the World
Harmony of the World, Ebenezer Sibly, 1806

The Divine Harmony of Creativity

The Italian Renaissance poet Girolamo Fracastoro characterized the reward at the end of the process of writing as a feeling of “a certain wonderful and almost divine harmony.” This harmonious feeling – make of it what one will – is, I think, the reward of creative life (at least mine) which renders the improbable rewards of other kinds incidental and unnecessary.

Harmony can be defined as ‘disparate elements organized convincingly and pleasingly’. The concept of harmony abounds in discussions of the fine arts generally. St Augustine wrote in De vera religione (391 AD), “In all the arts, that which pleases is harmony, which… invests the whole [of a work] with unity and beauty, either through the resemblance of symmetrical parts, or through the graded arrangement of unequal parts.” Mozart wrote in a letter to a friend, of musical ideas coming to him “in a stream… [I] keep them in my head, and people say I often hum them over to myself. Well, if I can hold onto them, they begin to join on to one another, as if they were bits a pastry cook should join together in the pantry. And now my soul gets heated, and if nothing disturbs me, the piece grows larger and brighter until, however long it is, it is all finished at once in my mind, so that I can now see it at a glance as if it were a pretty picture or a pleasing person. Then I don’t hear the notes one after the other, as they are hereafter to be played, but it as if in my fancy they were all at once.”

There is a resemblance between what Mozart describes and my own process in writing, although he makes it sound awfully easy. For me, producing an harmonic work is grittier and more willful than that.

The nucleus of a creative act for me will be something in my experience or reading that urges exploration for one reason or another. This core functions as a psychic magnet attracting to itself loosely associated ideas, images, personal memories, and scraps of learning. The harmonization of these odds and ends will require willful application on various levels, ranging from broad general concerns (genre, themes, dramatic issues, point of view), down to the shape and flow of sentences, individually and in association. This process is not entirely pleasant. And the idea or intuition that powered the effort initially may get lost in the mess temporarily, or for good. I can usually anticipate false starts, dead ends, suspicions of incompetence – not to mention interruptions by practical necessity. The defining character trait of the true writer, one of my teachers once said, is stubbornness.

“If I can think it, I can write it”, Paul Goodman once said – a remark acknowledging that a bright idea for a writer is just a starting point, a challenge. Just so, Lodovico Castelvetro (1505-1571) wrote in his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, “The appreciation of art is the appreciation of difficulties overcome.” If the challenge has been met, the harmonious result is regarded justifiably as a work.

Towards A Harmonious Cosmos

Is the harmony that satisfies the writer, artist, or composer, getting the ink monkey off his back irrespective of external rewards, merely a feeling? Or is there more to it than that?

The concept of harmony – the fine orchestration of diverse elements that turns up so often in discussions of aesthetics – was conceived in early metaphysical thought as an aspect of the cosmos. In ‘Hellenic Conceptions of Harmony’ (Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 16, No 1, 1963) Edward Lippman surveys variations on the idea in ancient Greek thought. In Hippocratic medicine, health was the harmonic balance of the four ‘humours’ of the human body, black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. The virtue of temperance in Plato’s Republic is an harmonious order of desires and feelings; and the good society harmonizes conflicting human interests. In Plato’s Timaeus, there was only chaos in the beginning, before the Demiurge, the builder of the world, introduced measure and proportion: the orderly motions of the heavenly bodies, the cycle of the seasons, the relations of the sexes, the forms in the natural world…

Analogies between harmony in nature and in works of art are at least one reason why the assigning of metaphysical or even religious significance to the arts has been irrepressible. While sharing his contemporaries’ belief that “Nature must always be explained mathematically and mechanically”, the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) urged recognition that the laws of mechanics were but one expression of the orderliness of the Divine Mind, which could also be apprehended in mental processes of a less abstract, more sensuous leaning. Thus he attributed the extraordinary power of music and poetry to their ‘foretaste and small evidence’ of ‘the wonderful harmony of Nature’. Influenced by Leibniz, Christian Wolff (1679-1754) argued that what explained the pleasure people find in a skillful work of art, a handsome person, or a comely cityscape, was an harmonious relation of parts to whole. It was the Mind of the Creator made manifest to our senses.

Are pre-rational animals capable of such metaphysical intuitions? The myth of Orpheus, whose singing and lyre-playing charmed audiences of animals, birds, and reptiles, suggests so. Cat or dog owners who play music in their homes are likely to have had the experience of their household beasts paying rapt attention to it. YouTube videos variously depict a herd of cows drawn across a field by a small band performing ‘When the Saints Come Marching In’; a dog mesmerized by a street violinist’s rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’; a dolphin hypnotized by a bagpiper; or elephants swaying in dancelike motions and flapping their ears rhythmically under the spell of a flautist.

Snowflake by Paul Gregory

Discord Over Harmony

Attributions of metaphysical significance to the arts such as those made by Leibniz and Wolff cut little ice with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who denied human access to ultimate reality by any means whatsoever. Kant made major contributions to our understanding of beauty and the sublime in his Critique of Judgement (1790). Romantic philosophers and artists were generally under the sway of Kant’s thinking, but were troubled nonetheless by Kant’s dualism of the thing for us – the world humans perceive and conceive in accordance with their mental categories and interests – as opposed to the thing in itself – ultimate reality independent of the subject, and to Kant, unknowable. For the Romantics, the arts, along with ecstatic communion with Nature, and Romantic love, were the means of transcending this disconnect. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), while loyal to Kant, was having it both ways when he wrote, “About the Absolute in the theoretical sense I dare not talk, yet I maintain that he who has recognized it when he experiences it, and keeps his eye constantly fixed on it, will derive a great benefit from it” (The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, 1892). However, a friend of Goethe’s, Karl Philipp Moritz (1757-1793), in On the Creative Imitation of the Beautiful, reverted to the concept of humanity as microcosmic mirror of the macrocosmic order, while substituting the harmonious arts for metaphysical reflection or the sciences as the means of communing with ultimate reality.

The thrust of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s thinking about the ideal poet was of the same order. Nineteenth century psychology commonly represented the human imagination as the faculty that discovers order in experience spontaneously, through resemblance, contrast, cause-and-effect, contiguity, or remoteness. In Chapter Thirteen of his Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge terms this faculty the Primary Imagination, distinguishing its simple, natural operations from those of the Secondary Imagination – the ideal poet’s imagination. The Secondary Imagination presupposes the Primary Imagination, but demonstrates ‘more than usual order’ combined with a ‘more than usual state of emotion’, harmonizing ‘the plenitude of the senses with the comprehensibility of the understanding’. In Chapter Fourteen, an ideal poetry – the work of the Secondary Imagination – is described as embodying a “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative… all of this formed into one graceful and intelligent whole.” A harmony, in other words. As for the ultimate significance of this graceful and intelligent whole, a passage in Chapter Thirteen states that the formative impulse of the poetic imagination is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” – in other words, an emulation of God. For Coleridge, then, it is the ideal poet, not the metaphysician, for whom ultimate knowledge and Being is realized. And one might suppose that if the ideal poet can access the Absolute, so can artists of other kinds who also experience the ‘certain wonderful almost divine harmony’.

Whatever metaphysical significance can be attributed to this passion for harmony, that people like myself should embrace this ideal and find it sufficient, irrespective of external reward, and pursue it into obscurity and even poverty as if anticipating an eternal reward, is certainly curious, if not positively mad.

© James Gallant 2022

James Gallant reflects on philosophic implications of the American government’s take on UFOs in a Fortnightly Review essay online: fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2022/10/gallant-angels-singularity/.

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