Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Art of Creation

It's John "Python" Cleese's birthday today [1939]. This time last year his autobiography "So, Anyway ..." was published: to mixed-to-savage reviews: Reactograph; Mail; Spectator. The deal with modern publishing is that you set off on a punishing round of book-signings and 2 minute interviews on talk-shows . . . otherwise the book won't sell and neither your agent, the publisher, the editor nor you will make any money. The talk-show host will not have read your book, the questions will be pedestrian and you have to be out of the studio on a flight to Wichita within the hour.  Occasionally, if you are a big enough star, you'll get to be interviewed in a theatre by someone who has read your book and, furthermore, brings something of their own to the table. That makes it much more interesting for everyone concerned and if it gets recorded and popped up on youtube, then you might sell many books.  This is how I tuned into John Hodgman interviewing John Cleese in an extended 'chat' about the book.  John Hodgman is the thinking man's comedian, very cerebral and ironic. I came across him in an early TED talk several years ago: clever-quirky.

It's quite an interesting dialogue when they start to talk about creativity. Cleese, being an intellectual "ahem! Cambridge" as well as a comedian, actor, writer and director, has read Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation, which has a chapter investigating humour and Henri Bergson's book about laughter
Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique. Cleese goes on to say that he read these fat volumes to see if they had anything to add to his own experience of inducing, or failing to induce, laughter.  There is a certain hubris in that equivalence: Three Men in a Boat (?!):
  1. As a journalist and writer Koestler may have done more than any single person to expose the hypocrisies and sullen violence of totalitarianism - read Darkness at Noon: you'll worry less about having enough credit for your iPhone. 
  2. Henri Bergson was the giant of early 20thC French philosophy who, in his spare time, won the 1927 Nobel Prize for Literature. The long list of smart people who have taken the trouble to disagree with Bergson indicates how disturbing his ideas are. I'm not going to bother reading Le Rire, even in English translation: I know I shall get strangled by the long words.
  3. John Cleese.
That analysis is quite catty but not half so grumpy and bitter as the reviews of Cleese's book cited at the top. Koestler's Act of Creation [Executive summary] I have read, not least because it spends a chunk of time looking at creativity in science as well as in humour and The Arts. Indeed it is as good a bridge as any for the gap between the Two Cultures which all my needle about the Arts Block attempts to expose. Koestler suggests that creativity hinges on "the perceiving of a situation or idea ... in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference". This was classically vindicated in [my telling of] the solving of Fermat's Last Theorem by Andrew Wiles.

The Hodgman interview led me, via the youtube sidebar to a very similar situation at College Tours with Twan Huys and an introduction and subtitles in Dutch. Now I know that stage-fright is plankenkoorts.  One of the many points made by Cleese is that, for him [and by extension any creative person], you need calm and quiet to hear the discord in your mind whose resolution leads to an Aha! moment.  As he sees it, there is very little space in the modern world to hear the still small voice of calm through the earthquake wind and fire of social media immediacy and dingling smart-phones.  I would add
           [4. Bob the Scientist]
that you have to have something in your head to set up the incompatible frames of reference. In science, that requires embedding yourself in the literature, experimental results, half-articulated ideas and rival theories of your field.  Only then do you have a chance of making a really creative contribution.

The final question in the College Tours encounter asks Cleese if he has any advice for the youth of today. His answer is that, after 75 years on the planet he has come to believe that a lot of his progress [and by extension the progress of other creative people] has been due to luck.  That's a rather bleak assessment, although it handily exposes the illusion that the world ticks according to a meritocracy.  But he the adds that the correct response to a random world is to be persistent. The chances of you landing the dream contract or the optimum life-partner on the first go-round are vanishingly small but they can be substantively increased if you keep plugging away. That's helpful advice. I'll add that you should also cultivate a degree of self-belief lest you be undermined by a succession of rejections from people who are far less talented than you are.

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