Sunday, December 16, 2012


These quotes are from Alvina Krause’s 1933 Master’s thesis about “Creative Imagination” -- Part One, that quickly sketches the historic theories about sources of creativity.

Somewhat similarly in the early theories of imagination, creative power was first ascribed to a Supreme Being only, and when it was exhibited in the works of man it was regarded as God-given.   [Plato said: ] Only a god could create an image or a portrait which would reproduce internal as well as external qualities.  God alone could create the true form of things.

But Aristotle says, “The theory of divine origin is absurd, because in addition to its [unreasonableness] one observes that these dreams do not come to the best and wisest, but to all sorts of men.”

For the most part the thinkers of the Middle Ages were trying to synthesize the theories of Plato, the idealist, with Aristotle, the realist. This synthesis, however, was not completed until Dante arrived with his theory of poetry, which was also his account of the function of imagination.  Dante’s Via Nuova presents simple visual and auditory images, products of the primary faculty of imagination.  These closely resemble the material objects which called them forth, according to the Aristotelian doctrine of imitation.  Because of his sensibilities the poet went through powerful emotional experiences until external vision became glorified inner vision of heavenly beauty. 

Then Addison proposes:  “Imagination has something in it like creation.  It bestows a kind of existence, and draws up to the reader’s view several objects which are not to be found in being.  It makes additions to nature, and gives a greater variety to God’s works.”

The outstanding characteristics of imagination in the estimation of these [Romantic] poets were spontaneity, individuality, passion.  In this connection one instantly recalls Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.

[Ribot and Lewis, recent theorists, agree that:] “The living conduct, then, of the human organism is instinctively that of motor expression to every incoming sensory impression; that is, for every sensory impression coming into the neural centers there is a corresponding and complemental expression in terms of outward muscular action or objective conduct.”

To simplify and demonstrate the progression above, we see a philosophical, artistic, and therefore religious argument going back to Greek thought.  Is creativity something supernatural that is gifted from God to certain human minds or is it something that is summoned up by genius within certain artists?  The Romantics want it to be almost theatrical  -- no still, small voices or rationally arrived-at formulas.  Ribot and Lewis are moving to a Skinnerian stimulus-response idea.  But today’s neurologists would say they are right.

Look at the original Christmas, in terms of the beginnings in the desert where people lived under densely spangled skies.  If you were an impoverished shepherd living under Roman oppression, nothing could be so convincing as a supernatural message from an “angel” and no form of salvation could be more natural than a birth, since birth is the business of shepherds -- lambing, anyway.  Birth of a superior person, one more powerful than the Caesar, is an idea that grips them with hope.  They are not much worried about the Solstice, an event more dramatic farther north where day length is more variable.  (Anyway, some say the birth of Jesus was probably in the summer.)

Plato and Aristotle are not Christian.  They didn’t even know there ARE Christians or that a future Caesar will make it the state religion, conflating it with the pre-existing ceremonies and ideas.  The difference between the two philosophers, living in the city among artisans and philosophers with a lot of time to think and talk, is temperament.  Plato likes the abstract -- the reality to him is the pattern he sees in things: the essential abstractions like triangles or other qualities.  He figures everything derives from those underlying ideas, like salvation or compassion.  Aristotle is practical.  He walks in the market and sees the ideas of the craftsmen: maybe little replicas, stars and creches, three wise men on camels.  

Dante would see the stirring drama of the attempt to murder all baby boys.  The collateral stories that have attached to the straightforward account of the birth of a Savior run to the Romantic, elaborating stories of the crippled boy and the stingy old man, or the political -- the problems of Herod or the eventual overturning of the money-changer’s tables.

Ever since those early interpretations, we’ve been fighting the money-changers’ tables.  In all ages there is a contingent that plots to seize creativity for profit, whether it is creating a market for battery-powered toys or raising money for the children of countries that are not even Christian -- a show of compassion that arises out of our awareness of greater power and wealth.  The cynical could say a form a boasting.

This post is meant to break up assumptions and suggest new understandings.  It is guided by the new thinking of neuro-science, suggesting what Daniel Bor calls “the ravenous brain,” not only always searching for pattern in the sensory world, but also constantly weaving new patterns.  No longer confined to a desert hillside or a town square or even the quads of a traditional university, the human mind ranges electronically through images of snow leopards and quasars.  What we see (vision standing in for all the senses) is an incredible array of possibilities and interactions mediated by our own capacity to sort and emphasize -- to create.

What we see are beginnings -- “births of stars” -- and oppressions that try to prevent change.  We can’t see our own sky anymore because we make so much artificial light, but we can see the surfaces of other planets.  We can see into molecules and we can see into camera-rigged boxes where animal babies are born.  We can see the bottom of the ocean and we can see the great whirling surface storms as they look from outer space.  And we see that the planet is changing, like it or not, and we see that we did it.

We hunger for reliable interpretations of what it all means.  The principles are often repeated, but don’t quite sink in.

  1. Everything is connected.  What you do in your smallest gestures can have enormous consequences.
  2. The old principles of generosity, compassion, understanding still work.  They have not been rescinded or replaced.
  3. When new ceremonies arise, they come out of the old ceremonies and often keep their shape and timing.  This is Aristotelian.  But the primal holiness of human meaningful interaction with the world is Platonic.
  4. What helps the individual survive is sometimes in conflict with what helps the species survive.  Take your choice.  But don’t think that your own subcategory of the species is more worth saving than any other kind of human or any other species.  And we carry the knowledge that all species are at risk.  The days are brief, the nights are long.  

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