During the last week of a long spring semester my students started talking about whether or not we’d run out of ideas. Like, as a species. We were reading the last essay in Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, “Multiplicity,” which is the one where he talks about encyclopedic novels. Calvino argues that in order for literature to stay relevant in the 21st century and beyond, it has to keep attempting new, ambitious things. He talks about books that try to ‘contain multitudes’—books that are like people: constellations of lots of knowledge and experience and other books.
It’s an idea worth exploring because it posits where we get ideas from to be creative. When authors push boundaries, what are they pushing on? When we try to come up with something new, what does that mean? In a world where Game of Thrones is derived from Lord of the Rings is derived from Norse myth, is anything original?
Yes, on the one hand, Disney is remaking their animated classics in live action versions, and every book about magic seems to nod to Harry Potter, and memes are funny because they’re repetitive. On the other hand, that is the whole history of creativity in a nutshell. Nothing comes from nothing. The whole history of creativity and innovation is a process not of creating from nothing, but of making stuff out of other stuff. In the most literal sense, paintings are made out of paint and canvas: materials become something new.
But ideas work that way too.
Calvino calls this process “combinatorial play” in his 1967 essay “Cybernetics and Ghosts.” He talks about it both in the context of the first storytellers, kind of rubbing a few words together until something sparked with meaning, and then also of computer software, that can be used to compose text. We’re always and ever manipulating ideas and words and plots that we already know.
For the Google generations, this means we need to do more filling of our own heads with material we can manipulate if we want to be creative. If we offload everything, there’s nothing for our subconscious to play with. I talk about this in a few blogs on memory.
For the bigger picture, though, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman’s recent book The Runaway Species makes the best sense of it for my money. All creative activity involves working with something to create something new. Again, nothing comes from nothing (nothing every could…). Brandt and Eagleman capture the processes in the delightfully alliterative trio of “bending, breaking, and blending,” but they corroborate the product in-product out model.
In bending, they argue an artist takes a material and just reshapes it. This is the modeling clay method, but the world is your oyster, not just the Play-Doh bucket. Take what already exists, and smush it until it looks different. Caricatures for instance. Or variations on a theme. (Think of music, but also visual arts, like Monet’s series of haystack paintings or Hokusai’s wood blocks of Mt Fuji. In literary terms, think of Sherlock Holmes—all variations on a theme).
Breaking involves actual rupture of a thing—Picasso’s people, buildings or bodies or books deconstructed and reassembled. Calvino’s hypernovel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler breaks the narrative in to a dozen pieces, split up by other stories. The tower of the art gallery is split and separated in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.
Blending heads back to Calvino’s combinatorial idea. If we put two things together, we get something new. Yellow and blue make green, yes, but also King Arthur legends and comedy sketch shows make Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
All of this is to say that my students don’t need to worry that there won’t be new ideas and new art. If we have a flood of texts and images now, it’s just that much more raw material for the artists and inventors of the next generation—them. And I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
Anthony Brandt and David Eagleton. The Runaway Species. Catapult, 2017.
Italo Calvino. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Vintage. 1993.