E. O. Wilson is one of the most important and influential scientists of our age. His work on the deep foundations of human nature and behavior has inspired many in the arts and sciences – just to name one example, the fruitful new discipline called evolutionary psychology is impacting many areas, including marketing, politics, and education. His latest book, The Origins of Creativity, promises new insights into the creative process.
In the video linked above, Alan Alda interviews E. O. Wilson about the dynamics between the individual and society that inspire creativity:
Alan Alda: The campfire was the place that drew them. Maybe it was just the pleasure of looking at the flames, maybe it was to compete, maybe it was actually toasting marshmallows… but they told stories. That sounds to me like a tremendous engine for empathy.
E.O. Wilson: The important thing is to see what the groups really were when they gathered around the firelight as opposed to the sunlight, and to know what they were really saying, and what was talked about all around.
A.A.: During the day it was mostly workaday things: what are we going to eat, how are we going to get it.
E.O.W.: But what they were doing by the firelight—talking and singing and story-telling—was what made us human.
A.A.: Creativity is tied in with empathy. One way of looking at it is that originality is a group experience, as solitary as it might seem. How do you feel about that?
E.O.W.: The creative process tends to be an individual endeavor, but it often comes about when a very small group—often just two people or three people, are together and they’re toying with a problem. But there has to be a proper apportion of credit within the society that did this individual work.
The thrust of Wilson’s life work is that the division between the arts and sciences are neither natural nor helpful. His latest work promises new pathways between the two, a venture guaranteed to generate lively conversations and further discoveries.
Last week’s Quote of the Day by George Bernard Shaw got me to thinking about the dark forces behind the creative process. I believe every artist tries to work out unresolved issues in their lives through their art. Tom Petty, Robin Williams, David Sedaris, and Stephen King, just to name a few, sought redemption from childhood pain in their work. Would the sparks between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have been so believable had Margaret Mitchell not been abandoned by her first husband? I doubt it.
And yet, the best artists don’t just shake their fists at a cruel, unjust world; they create something that breathes and moves. Their pain drives them to create art that inspires people. The focus of great art is not the author but the audience.
Stand-up comic Tiffany Haddish learned this lesson from none other than Richard Pryor when she was performing at the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp:
I was on the stage telling jokes and he says, “Stop! Stop! What are you doing?” I said, “I’m telling a joke,” and he says, “No, you’re not!” He said, “Look, people don’t come to comedy shows because they want to hear about your problems, or politics or religion. They come to have fun, so when you’re on stage, you need to be having fun. If you’re having fun, the audience is having fun.” And then as I got older I started realizing, “Oh man, I’m trying to do this in everything in life because once I started having fun onstage, you know, people were nice to me. People were kind; it was easier to move forward.”
As George Bernard Shaw advised, “Be a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” Tiffany Haddish was lucky enough to learn this from one of the comic greats. The same lesson applies to writers.
“Perhaps what distinguishes artists from regular folks is that for whatever reasons, their imaginative drive is less inhibited; they have retained in adulthood more of that five-year-old’s fantasy than others have.” – Leonard Bernstein
“An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” – Charles Bukowski
New Orleans cemetery
A study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology finds that thinking about the worst that could happen, including death, energizes athletes, as well anyone striving to improve their “performance-related activities”:
Study co-leader Uri Lifshin of the University of Arizona told Medical News Today: “Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful. Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.”
“Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem. Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.”
There’s a fire inside every artist that drives him to complete that special piece, to create a thing of beauty and meaning that will survive him and tell people of a future time that he once lived. And mattered.
A memento mori works as a severe yet effective motivator. Focusing on mastering oneself in the face of oblivion is a discipline that enables us to live more, not less. The Bushido code of the Japanese samurai reflected the same strategy for optimizing one’s efforts: “One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.”
Gotta go. I have a novel to finish.
Novelist and teacher M. Thomas Gammarino experienced an epiphany when he taught two courses in the same semester, one on science fiction, and another in modernism. Gammarino expected the two genres to clash, but happily discovered they supplemented each other. The reason, he explains in this Omni article, is that all art aims to enable us to see the world more intently by presenting it in unfamiliar and challenging ways:
In his 1917 essay “Art as Device,” Russian formalist poet Viktor Shlovky gave us the term ostranenie to describe the primary function of art. The term is usually translated as “defamiliarization,” though it literally means “strange-making.” The job of art, in other words, is to renew our eyes by making the familiar appear strange. Other modernists had— or would— put forth variations on this idea, from Mallarmé’s “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu” (purify the words of the tribe) to Ezra Pound’s “Make it new,” and modernist critics regularly invoke this idea to illuminate the sorts of linguistic experiments writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce were up to.
I heartily agree. Both fantasy and sci-fi renew one’s sense of wonder in ways literary fiction cannot. That’s not to say literary fiction is incapable of reawakening the awe we felt as a child discovering our shiny, new world. Energetic, evocative writing in any genre helps us re-imagine the world around us, forcing us to see it anew. But literary fiction tends to focus on the inner world, while fantasy and sci-fi direct us toward the outer world — or even toward new, imagined worlds. Speculative fiction always goes big, reminding us of our role in society, the world, and the universe itself.
That’s what makes fantasy and sci-fi such powerful springboards for the imagination.
“There are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and the second is art. Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other. Without art science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.” – Raymond Chandler