Living · Reading

On Creativity–Saturation or Serendipity

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?

Of course.

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.


The Once and Future Course

When I started my job, there was only one medieval course on the books: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I was to be the only medievalist, and in fact, even more than that. My job description was technically “Medieval and Renaissance Non-Dramatic Literature,” which meant that we had two Shakespeareans, but I could have Spenser. So in my first few years, I designed courses that fit my interests and Cal Poly’s needs. The Epic. Myth as Literature. Arthurian Romance.
Now that we’re shifting from quarters (which has the advantage of more, if shorter, classes), I find myself facing down my last King Arthur class. Poor Arthur didn’t make the cut to conversion. That’s a hazard at a school with only one medievalist—there are a number of courses that no one teaches but me, and if I’m teaching fewer courses, well….
This makes me pretty sad, but I’ve had a good run.  King Arthur is a subject, a whole field, really, that doesn’t get old. It’s an incredibly productive mythos in Western literature.  From 9th century histories to this summer’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it’s still alive and well in our imaginations, and for good reason.

It starts with magic—with Merlin helping the impassioned King Uther in to another man’s bed, in a move that curries favor and power, but banks it.  Merlin is patient and can wait for Arthur to grow up. In the middle, there’s the rise of Arthur and the Round Table, from his pulling the sword from the stone, to the establishment of his court of champions, all the iconic episodes of which have been told and retold. Perhaps the peak is the unifying (but ruinous for Camelot) Quest for the Holy Grail. And finally, the fall of Camelot, set in motion by the love affair of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.
You can see why it’s productive.  It’s bloody brilliant, really. First, the life of Arthur is mythically heroic. I mean he fits the model of so many heroes in world literature, with his supernatural birth, his noble roots but obscure upbringing, and so many other mythic traits.  He is an epic hero in the truest sense.
And then he establishes a court. Several of his knights have their own iconic adventures—Gawain with the Green Knight, Percival and the Grail, Tristan and his tragic love for Iseut.  From a marketing standpoint alone, that’s gold.  Arthur has 150 knights.  Their tales could go on forever.
And the Grail thing.  Just think how productive that has been. We use it as a generic magical object now; it’s the Kleenex of questing objects. It was also a quest that united all the court—everyone went. But not everyone came back, and only a few got close to achieving it. A quest like that is like the Expendables franchise—a greatest hits roster, made for fans who will go nuts to see them all together.
And the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere. We don’t even need Arthur anymore. He’s just the center of the circle, holding the tales together. His knights and now even his wife have moved on, but they’d have been nothing without him.

As I teach this course one last time, I’ll focus on that center of gravity that Arthur represents.  And who knows, maybe one day in the future, I’ll work him back in to the curriculum.