Thursday, December 20, 2007

Creative Contradictions

I am an artist, even if I fail to bring forth a single work of art. I lack the practical skill and the theoretical basis to be a musician, painter, or sculptor and the general, historical, and linguistic education for poet and philosopher. Well, the skills might be acquired, the rest I have. It seems too late for acquiring these skills systematically; moreover, beginning in youth, because of ignorance, and at ripe manhood because of knowledge, I have lacked perseverance and focus on a small area. I have tasted too many fruits.

My mind is a cornucopia, overflowing with ideas and interests. Instead of choosing an art, I have made a study of the artist type, that is myself, one who has a creative gift and drive even if I never produce a work of art in the conventional sense. Self-consciousness, I say, is the artist's only good fortune; and self-consciousness I have in abundance, in addition to the drive to write about it.

According to one theory, creativity depends on the ability of the artist or scientist to hold opposite ideas in the mind simultaneously, to live and work with contradictions. "No mind can engender till divided in two," wrote W. B. Yeats. Or as my blogger friend Rick likes to say, quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Sigmund Freud not only coped with ambivalence; he raised it to a new level of consciousness. Reaction formation, denial, repression, and dream work are some of the terms he used to accommodate the phenomenon of opposites that he observed in himself and others: Disgust conceals attraction, altruism conceals sadism, behind the fear lies the wish, etc. Many people cannot tolerate such oxymorons in their lives; they feel out of control, or "crazy." Their notion of sanity stifles creativity. Freud's elucidation of the dynamic unconscious enabled people to cope better with normal inconsistency and to be more creative as a result.

A psychiatrist, Albert Rothenberg, M.D., has described a creative cognitive sequence that he has termed the janusian process, after Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings, whose faces look in opposite directions at the same time. The janusian process lies at the heart of the most striking creative breakthroughs. Contrary to the romantic notion that creativity grows largely out of inspiration, the thinking of dreams, or some unconscious source, Rothenberg has found the janusian process--a major element of the creative process--to be a conscious, rational process.

In the janusian process, multiple opposites or antitheses are conceived simultaneously, either as existing side by side or as equally operative, valid, or true. In an apparent defiance of logic or of physical possibility, the creative person consciously formulates the simultaneous operation of antithetical elements or factors and develops those formulations into integrated entities and creations. It is a leap that transcends ordinary logic. What emerges is no mere combination or blending of elements: the conception contains not only different entities, but also opposing and antagonistic elements that are experienced and understood as coexistent. As a self-contradictory structure, the janusian formulation is surprising when seriously posited. Although it usually appears modified and transformed in the final product, it leaves the mark of implicit unexpectedness and paradox on the work.

The British sculptor Henry Moore said, "To know one thing, you must know the opposite . . . just as much, else you don't know that one thing. So that, quite often, one does the opposite as an expression of the positive." Josef Albers, a painter, described his own approach. "I start from experiences and read . . . always between polarities . . . loud and not loud . . . young and old . . . spring and winter. . . . If I can make black and white behave together instead of shooting at each other only, I feel proud."

Although the janusian process derives from healthy functions, it generates mental conflict and tension. While causing difficulties for their users, it leads to the gratifying achievement of lasting works of art, novels, poems, and scientific theories.

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