Conceptions of conception
GRAMMARS OF CREATION by George Steiner Faber. £16.99, pp. 283, ISBN 0571206816 THE ORIGINS OF CREATIVITY edited by Karl H. Pfenninger and Valerie R. Shubik OUP, £20, pp. 266, ISBN 0198507151 Aspectre is haunting the study of the mind: the spectre of neuroscience. Are we, after the explosive development in the last 20 years of MRI. PET and other non-invasive technologies for eavesdropping on the cortex, at last in a position to realise the hopes of scientific radicals and the fears of cultural conservatives that we can pinpoint in some convolution of the ideogenetic tissue the precise point of origin of, say, the 'atonal' section of the development in the finale of the G minor symphony or the appearance of the messenger from Corinth at the climax of the Oedipus Rex? Is even the definitive human achievement of aesthetic generation about to cross the snow line and become the pabulum of formulaladen articles in technical journals rather than the claret-driven musings of High Table? Two new books offer between them one vantage point for framing an answer. George Steiner, doyen of critical, literary and humanistic culturalism, has put a dust jacket on his Gifford lectures of 1990, and OUP have brought out the latest popular compendium of interdisciplinary potshots at the elusive target of the mind-brain interface.
There are, of course, certain difficulties that have to be overcome in reading Steiner. He is uncompromising in his use of not only the content (fleeting references to out-of-the-way writers and an alarming acquiescence in the normality of Hegel and even Heidegger) but also the mannerisms of continental cultural discourse (interjection of rhetorical questions in brackets, use of the indefinite article before great names, as in 'in a Keats .. . or a Schubert'). These habits are buttressed by not infrequent recourse to a tone of portentous oracularity which it is notoriously easy to find transparently specious. Indeed such is his predilection for polysyllabic obscurantism that he might almost appropriate the expostulation of the apocryphal jurisprudentialist who protested against allegations of gratuitous philological exhibitionism. In the case of Grammars of Creation, these difficulties are compounded by the fact that his argument is structured more in the manner of a novel or a play than of an expository treatise, with a wide range of subsidiary themes making their exits and their entrances more at the whim of dramatic propriety than from the exigencies of exposition.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dispatch this work peremptorily to the exile of Pseud's Corner (even if he does think negative entropy is the same as chaos). Steiner is engaged in an exercise of grammatology, the attempt to use the intercon nected nuances of a range of highly charged abstractions, their 'semantic fields', to throw light on deep, or at any rate salient, assumptions about fundamental cultural values.
'Creation' is cardinal in theology, in philosophy, in our grasp of art, music and literature. My inquiry is founded on the assumption that the semantic field of this word is most active and questionable where religiousmythological narratives of the origins of the world, in Genesis, for example, or in Plato's Timaeus, press upon our attempts to understand the coming into articulate being of philosophic visions and poetics. How do stories of the inception of the Kosmos relate to those which recount the birth of the poem, of the work of art or melody? In what regards are theological, metaphysical and aesthetic conceptions of conception kindred or divergent?
The inquiry is conducted in a loosely evolutionary way, mingling history with thematic analysis, Beginning with Athens and Jerusalem (on whose similarities and differences Steiner is always stimulating), he uses the Timaeus, 'the bible of Neoplatonism', to effect the transition to the
Scholastics, where the baton is taken over, strikingly, by the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Eucharist, which Steiner perceives as subliminally present in later Renaissance and Romantic conceptions of creativity. This cues a fascinating discussion of Dante as the apex of the synthesis of the theological, aesthetic and philosophical conceptions of creation. He contrasts, for instance, the central role of Virgil in the Inferno and Purgatorio with the reluctance of 'a Shakespeare' to engage in the creation of creators.
As we move away from the Dantean synthesis, the salient interaction of semantic fields shifts from that of the theological and the aesthetic senses of 'creation' to the rivalry of the sibling notions of creation and invention, which are fruitfully commingled and confused. As Steiner rightly says, 'definitions blur'. In this climate of definitional obscurity, who else can make his appearance but the dreaded figure of Hegel? But, just as we expect a plunge into the full rigours of the Phenomenologie, the centre stage is cheekily stolen by Hblderlin's even more impenetrable essay on the Verfahrungsweise of the mind of the poet. Here are all the great themes — the antinomy of Being and Not-Being (the Nothing notheth not), the negation of negation, the sublation of the non-existent by the incipient — but above the heavy orchestration rises the shrill motif of the duel between the mind of the Romantic poet and the Unendlich, the infinity, amongst others, of the aesthetic possibilities from which the creator is forced to choose, a conceit prefiguring the insistence, in the later discussion, on the eidetic destructiveness of creativity, bolstered by reflections, with the occasional ukase, on the answerability of the artist for the thing made and the harnessing of temporality itself to the imperium of the creative actuality.
We are now at the start of the home straight, as Steiner carries us at full tilt from the luxuriant verbiage of the Biedermeier philosophers into the Sprachkritik of Hofmannsthal and Kraus, pausing only for a vignette on the last night in the life of Evariste Galois (whose death at 21 held up the development of 19th-century mathematics by perhaps five decades) and a discursus on the ontogeny of the lyric poems of a Yeats or a Larkin. The discussion of the criticism of language in early 20th centuryVienna (with Wittgenstein being assigned a fashionably non-central role) gives dialectic precision to Steiner's central, Frankfurtian theme of the murder of meaning in the death camps of the Shoah (as he rightly prefers to call the Holocaust), a subject which, here, is looked at mostly retrospectively through the heart-rending example of Paul Celan arid his post-war struggles, as a Jewish poet, to come to terms with the use of the German language. The sustained intensity, the intellectual energy, of this discussion is extraordinary, so much so that one can forgive its obviously excessive Germanocentrism (what, we ask, about Croce, Saussure, Collingwood et al.?).
But, before the end, Steiner has another surprise to pull. Our own age is denied access to the key semantic resonances of the seminal concepts of our hereditary culture by the barbarism of our recent past and the godlessness of our debased present, but, lo, at dusk the owl of Minerva does indeed take flight. We may be in the late afternoon of a culture, no longer at ease with the self-definition of our species by the dignity of speech, but a mutation is subterraneanly taking place. In Paris, London, Berlin, Washington and a myriad other centres the work of archiving and garnering the past is proceeding apace and a kind of ultra-Alexandrian preoccupation with the shoring up of every scrap is leading inevitably, through the medium of the Internet, to a quantum change in the core triadic relationship of author, work and readership. Technology precedes metaphysics.
Steiner's travel sketches of the Web are as brilliantly suggestive and tantalising as everything else in this dazzling tour de force but, ultimately, as unsatisfying. The eventual conclusion, reprised slightly out of key in the brief and inchoate coda, is aporetic. Can atheists create? Can there be origination if, in an authentic sense, there is no death? This all smacks alarmingly of the apotheosis of the sixth-form prize essay, suspicion of which has taken some repressing at earlier junctures in the argument. And, to my taste at least, there is a certain vacuity to the, admittedly provisional, definition of creativity that we finally reach as the exercise of a certain form of freedom which intrinsically entails the renunciation of other, perhaps equally valid, creative options. This negative result tells us what creativity is not, but not much about what it is, nor are we brought much further by the sprinkled references to such marginal figures as Duchamp, Schwitters and Tinguely. It is hard not to smile at the murine output of so mountainous a parturition.
So we turn to The Origins of Creativity, a collection of a dozen or so pieces from a fairly wide spectrum of pundits. The contributors come from both the arts and the sciences and discuss both the experience of creation and its theoretical explanation, but the relation between these two dichotomies is very much orthogonal. Thomas Cech, for instance, tells us what it was like to make the discovery that RNA can itself catalyse metabolic processes, a finding for which he won the Nobel Prize, while the glass artist Dale Chihuly, the painter Francoise Gilot and the composer Bruce Adolphe all let us into the secret of how they get their best ideas. This shared creativity of arts and sciences is given a formal framework by the development by Gunther Stent of his familiar thesis that the supposed contrast between the indispensability of the artist to the work of art and the irrelevance of the scientist to the scientific discovery is factitious. Considerable attention is paid to the developmental context of the creative mind, with Janina Galler deploring the consequences of lack of stimulus as being perhaps even more deleterious than simple malnutrition; George Palade writing lucidly on the golden flower of 20th-century art; and, most substantially, the always readable Howard Gardner surveying a range for successful creators from Stravinsky to Gandhi. The hard science is provided by Antonio Damasio on sensory processing and imagination, Karl Pfenninger on brain evolution and Charles Stevens on the separation of image components in visual processing.
The show, however, is stolen and the tone is set by Mandelbrot, who contributes a lively review of his more recent ideas and whose spirit dominates the concluding synthesis provided by the editors. This is unusually schoolmasterly in its castigations of the perceived waywardness of this or that contributor — a bit like criticising the dress of one's dinner guests — but it makes it very plain that the upshot of the whole is that fractal order is the key to creativity.
So what is creativity? Creativity must be the ability to generate in one's brain (the association cortex) novel contexts and representations that elicit associations with symbols and principles of order. Such symbols or principles of order are innate to the human brain or part of the repertoire of acquired dispositional representations in the brains that form one's culture or society. Creativity further must include the ability to translate the selected representations into a work of art or science. Much of these abilities depends upon the highly developed human association cortex.
This definition would appear to have the required scientific sobriety but it surely leaves more questions open than closed. No doubt, as these scholars are hardly the first to have noticed, perception of certain archetypal patterns does at some level underlie the phenomenon of aesthetic satisfaction. But such forms are hardly a necessary condition for that state and their mere postulation or even enumeration is hardly a sufficient explanation of it. The relevance of the new sciences to the study of creativity is amply documented by this collection, but the genie has not exactly been put back in its bottle.
My conclusion is that the mystery has survived at least these onslaughts. Neither philological musing nor the psychology lab have yet put a marker on why it is that we do what we most value doing. Pass the claret.