Creatio Nihilo

Just when I think I’ve reconciled myself with technology, this goes and happens.  These precise words, in this order, have been written before.  In fact, all words in the English language have already been laid out in every conceivable order.  Technology can be friend or foe, it seems.  The website Library of Babel—with its biblical name—has undertaken the task of writing every conceivable combination of letters (using our standard English alphabet) and putting them into a vast, if only electronic, library.  This was not done by a human being like me, with intent or even any interest in the meaning of the words, but rather as one of those things people do simply because they can.  This entire paragraph can be copied and pasted into their search box and found.

The Library of Babel has made plagiarists of us all, even as it plagiarized everything written before it was programed.  After I learned about this library the wind avoided my sails for a while.  You see, what’t the point in writing what’s already been written?  Then it occurred to me.  Context.  The fact is, had I not scriven these very words, and put them on this blog, they would never have come to the attention of the kinds of people who read what I write.  The words have been spelled out before, but they’ve never been written before.   Those of us who write know the difference.  We spend hours and hours reading and thinking of ways to combine words.  We’re not out to kill the creativity of our species, we simply want to participate.

There should be limits to human knowledge, otherwise we’d have nothing for which to strive.  The internet may make it seem that all knowledge has been found—it is so vast and so terribly diverse—and yet there are people who never use a computer.  Their wisdom counts too.  It may seem that everything is here, but there is material that still has to be looked up in physical books.  There are crates and crates of clay tablets from antiquity that have never been transcribed and translated.  When that finally happens, the words they contain may be found, in a strangely prophetic way, in the Library of Babel.  But they won’t have any meaning there until it is given by the context.  And what can a library preserve if it isn’t the context that a (human) writer has given the words?

Credulity

So I went to see The Incredibles 2. Like the first movie, it deals with the complexities of family life amid the feelings of inadequacy when people are kept from their full potential. The idea of humans being enslaved by their screens seemed real enough. If you’ve ever tried to walk through Manhattan in a hurry you know that one of the clearest dangers is the pedestrian staring at his or her phone. People used to come to New York to see the scenery. Now you can get the full experience all online. There’s little doubt that we do need to be saved from our screens. Meet virtual reality. After only one encounter you can drop the “virtual.” Ironically, we were all sitting in a theater looking at a great big screen.

What was even more interesting was the fact that the film began with an apology for taking so long to make a sequel. An actual apology. As if no movie ever could, or should stand on its own. It’s common knowledge that sequels seldom live up to the originals. Interestingly, the villain in the movie states that people will always choose convenience over quality. That much is certain, and in an ironic way it applies to the film in which it’s uttered. I don’t believe in the crisis for creativity. It’s still out there. Original ideas are endemic to human nature. Ideas that bring in lots of money are more rare, and so we rely on the sequel. Sure things.

Publishers play this same game. Books that are completely new ideas frequently find their way from editors’ slush piles to their rejection piles. Publishers want something similar to what they’ve done before. Even better, something similar to something that sold well last time. The odds, in a capitalistic society, are stacked against creativity. It’s money that’s important, not originality. Yes, there have been books written extolling the wonders—virtues even—of originality. Such books are more easily published if they’re written by somebody already famous. So here was the dilemma in the theater: enjoy the movie or accept the message of the movie? The rare days I’m away from the screen, I’m old enough to admit, I don’t really crave it. When I come back in the door, however, the first thing I do is login to see if I’ve missed anything. Screens can lead to a strange uniformity. As long as we’re willing to pay for it, nobody will complain.

Creative Religion

If you ignore common sense and read this blog, you know that I try to be creative in my approach to the world. It’s bold, in my way of thinking, to claim the mantle of creativity since there are so many people out there that the world has already decided are creative enough, thank you. Who has time to visit all the world’s museums, read all the world’s novels, or watch all the world’s films? Why contribute to the clutter? The answer—in as far as there is an answer—is that creativity is a way of being. My wife sent me a piece by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings. It is about the creative life. I’m reluctant to claim the title for myself, but the essay does match the description of what I’d like life to be.

Writing about religion daily requires a certain amount of creativity. If you think about it, it does make sense. Religion deals with intangibles. “Things not seen.” It also delves into that deep place called meaning and wrestles with issues we all have to face in our lives. It’s really a shame when religion becomes ossified into a system with no creativity or humor. One might make the case that it ceases to be religion then. The other day I was recalling just how powerful a high mass can be. Even now, if the mood is right, the memory of my first experience of it can bring tears to my eyes. It is a pageant of mystery and power. And creativity. The colors, the sounds, the scent of incense, the pressure of the kneeler on your knees, the sharp bite of flame tokay. It may not be the worship the way the disciples did it, but it sure has a creative genius.

When, however, worship became a daily requirement—when the majesty became mandatory—something was lost. Creativity means being willing to try something different. As much as we creative types cherish our friends, we need time alone with our Muses. And when we come back together with those friends, it is all the more pleasant for having been away. Creative people do not control their creativity. It clearly works the other way around. We can’t stop being creative, even if—and I can’t imagine why—we’d ever want not to be. Religion, on the other hand, tends to get stuck in some awkward places. If only it could be brought together with an open creativity without becoming trite it might find a place in a world too busy to take time simply to be.

Veni Creator Spiritus

Over 100 billion have been made. Not McDonald’s hamburgers, this time, but Crayola crayons. For many of us, Crayola is one of the distinct scents of childhood, and the vibrant colors Binney and Smith offered were inexpensive keys to creative expression. After a visit to the Crayola Experience in Easton, Pennsylvania over the weekend, I began to wonder how society might have changed due to the introduction of the inexpensive crayon. Reading about childhood in the Victorian era often feels like a Dickensian bleak view of want and wasting. Children learned their lessons in school, when they went to school, in black and white. The world of color was visible to them, but not ready to hand for representation. Maybe I’m under the spell of that Crayola smell again, but I wonder how giving a child a box of color changed the way the world was perceived.

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The Crayola Experience, like the showcase of Hershey, Pennsylvania, is not a factory tour. You’re not shown the inside of the place of business, but rather the public facing side of capitalism: the part that makes you want to buy. Even after the kids are grown. Nevertheless, the experience is one of wonder and imagination for young and old alike. Art is a deeply personal form of expression. Even as I sat at a low, brightly primary-colored table, shading away on my picture, I didn’t want anyone else to see it. This was my own self-expression. On the wall were quotes from children who were not quite so damaged as me, declaring why they decided to color the cow purple or the horse green.

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To participate in some of the activities you need to cash in a token; admission gives you three and more are available for purchase. The motto on the tokens is “In creativity we trust.” It is a motto that I can live with, for it seems that creativity is the realm of the divine. Otherwise, I find it difficult to fathom why a few hours amid such a juvenile pastime could be so utterly satisfying. It’s as if the rainbow, a religious symbol of my childhood, had been fractured out into countless variations and captured in wax for the expression of my soul. Breathing deeply of that paraffin recipe, I think how only the other major aroma of childhood—that of Play-Doh—can take me back to fantasies of innocent hours where the world demands nothing of you beyond being who you are. How quickly that grace period ends. And yet, for a few dollars we can go back for an hour or two, and remember what it was like to create entire worlds.

Animal Mentalism

SciAmScience is how we know things. Most things, at least. One of the fundamental aspects of human life not yet grasped by the great empirical method is creativity. We generally have an idea how it works, but, like so much of human experience, it is difficult to describe precisely. When I saw this month’s Scientific American fronting with the headline “Evolution of Creativity”—two of my favorite topics—I knew I’d have to read it. The article by Heather Pringle zeroes in on the archaeology of very early human history. Before modern human, actually. I’d been telling students for years that the development of such traits as artistic representation, burial, music, and an awareness of some forces “out there” could be found tens of thousands of years ago. These, I suggested, marked the beginnings of religious sensibilities. I’d be willing to go even farther, however, and suggest that we share some of these traits with our fellow creatures. Religion may have a biological basis. That’s not where Pringle is going, however, and she addresses not religion, but creativity.

Pringle suggests that evidence for human technology—modest though it may be—stretches back further than the 40K epoch that seemed to house an explosion of human innovation. She shows how sophisticated knowledge of the environment and corresponding innovations were occurring 77,000 years ago, and even earlier. Some of it stretches back before Homo sapiens; stone weapons may be as early as Homo heidelbergensis and kindling fire as early as Homo erectus. Even our Australopithicene cousins seem to have been happily knapping stones two-and-a-half million years ago. The evidence, at the moment, seems to end there. I wonder, however, how far back cognitive development goes. We tend to underestimate the thinking abilities of animals, despite our constant surprise at how smart they seem to be. How very human! How very male, to assume that everything else is here for our use and pleasure.

Scientists often come upon with astonishment ideas that creative folks have been pondering for centuries. Science must be careful—that is one of its limitations. Creativity, the phenomenon Pringle explores, contains, in the words of Lyn Wadley’s team in Science, chemistry and alchemy. Creativity, like religion, isn’t afraid of magic. No doubt, some scientists will claim that true intelligence only begins with humanity. Looking at the way we treat each other, sometimes I doubt that it begins even there. If there is any hope for us, I would humbly suggest, it will come in the form of creativity. It is that very alchemy that keeps me coming back to science, and science will teach us, eventually, that animals are creative too. When we place ourselves among them, we will have created a world.

Toy Story 2.1

Summer is a season for movies. When the weather gets hot, sitting in an artificially cooled dark room for a couple hours, even if it is with strangers, seems like a good idea. Generally the movies I see in theaters are family movies – I’ve never been one to go to a theater alone and my personal taste in movies is unique in my family. The more interesting flicks usually have to wait until DVD release before I see them. Nevertheless, the movies are an experience that many of us remember fondly from childhood and children deserve good movie memories. Since the movie theater was invented it has become one of the signatures of culture in many parts of the world.

Last weekend, during the East Coast Heat Wave – a weather event so much talked about that it should have had its own theme music – we went to see Toy Story 3. In an unusual departure from my focus on religion, my comments here will focus on creativity. (Good religion is creative, after all.) Toy Story 3 opened to much critical acclaim, so my expectations ran a little high. A little too high. While I found the story to be interesting, it was a bit familiar. For those acquainted with the franchise, it felt like a remake of Toy Story 2. Both films open with the toys worried about their future because Andy is going away. In both 2 and 3 Woody is separated from his friends and has an epiphany that leads him back. Buzz gets returned to factory settings to reprise his humor in the first film. An evil toy in both movies holds the others captive against their wills. Meanwhile Woody makes new friends and with their assistance rescues the threatened toys. The evil toy ends up getting his just deserts and Andy’s toys successfully integrate.

The story line values friendship and commitment, and there is nothing to complain about there. Yet, after stepping out into the harsh sunlight, I felt like I’d just paid to see a movie I’d already seen before. Creativity – the factor that leads to truly new concepts – is not always valued in movies. This is particularly so in children’s movies. Our kids are being programmed to accept recycled stories as something new. It is not only Toy Story that has fallen into such rehashing: how many fresh ideas are shortly followed up by a 2, 3 or 4? Even if 1 wasn’t so good? I’ve even been told by publishers that publishing houses prefer to take few risks – they would rather have a product that is “like” one that has already proven a blockbuster. How many wizards and vampires have populated tween books over the last decade or so? It seems that the safe money is in the recycled story. In a society hooked on convenience, new ideas might seem just a little too dangerous. Once there was a cowboy blog…

Best friends forever and ever and ever