how inspiration works (quote): I


To my mind, the most persuasive explanation of the phenomenon we are pleased to call “inspiration” (pleased because we like mysteries, we like to think ourselves chosen) is the one offered us by the mathematician Henri Poincaré in a little essay, “Mathematical Creation,” frequently reprinted from his illuminating book Foundations of Science.

The ground must be there. The ground is an individual’s genetic facility with the medium. But we must not be mistaken about what this facility is. Poincaré is at pains to point out that an inborn knack with numbers (a ready memory for such operations) has little to do with mathematical creativity. Nor does the ability many have to pick up languages as if the languages were thumbing a ride (again, a ready memory, a gift Rilke also had) give promise of poetry or playwriting or any other creative work. The ground Poincaré is speaking of is the ability to make fruitful connections between otherwise unlinked elements of the medium—mathematical connections in his case—resemblances, parallels, analogies—which constitute the synthesizing side of the science or the art; as well as the analytic aspect—the ability to discern deep differences among things as apparently similar as twins.

If the ground is there, we can begin to till it. The elements of the medium must be internalized. The principles of their manipulation must be mastered. Again, we must not confuse learning a language with the training necessary for its poetic use, precisely because the poetic use is a radical reversal of its function in ordinary life. Paradoxically, our budding poet must be “trained” to “play.” If both rules and elements are few in number (as, relatively, they are in music, mathematics, and the formalized genres of poetry, and as they are definitely not in fiction, history, anthropology, or philosophy), then useful results may be possible, even expected, by youthful efforts in these fields.

The training does not conclude with the internalization of elements and rules. The practice of other mathematicians, or poets, or composers, must be studied, heard, consumed. This listening, this reading, must be of the analytical kind I have called (in the case of language) transreading. For what is crucial to creativity is the repeated experience, by our young practitioner, of quality of the highest kind. Really gifted people know that values are as “out there” as cows in a field. And a sense for such significant combinations must be developed. Creativity concerns correct choice. I should say that the whole nature of a culture can be seen in its patterns of selection. The entire history of both art and science supports the view that some choices are better than others.

What does one learn? To ask the right question. As I noted in the section on transreading, Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason in effect asks it: namely, why is a thing what it is, and not some other thing; or, why was this word chosen rather than some other? It may be that the nature of the universe does not provide answers of such completeness, so that we are left with half an explanation (what a thing is, not why it could not be otherwise), but works of art are supposed to bear more justification for their existence than you or I, a fox or flower or blade of grass, have to. There could be causes for the cosmos, but no reasons, or all of IT and the whole of WE could be accidents. The artist must do a better job than God has, although, having internalized the reasons for his choices, he may not be easily able to articulate them. Nevertheless, they’ll be there.


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