Archive for December 27th, 2010
As I hinted briefly yesterday, there was a time, in my early teens, when I thought that The White Goddess by Robert Graves was the most important book I had ever read, and perhaps that had ever been written. I’ve since modulated my admiration a bit, largely because I’ve come to realize that Graves’s central argument—that the Celts worshiped a Triple Goddess of the moon whose cult was forcibly overwhelmed by the followers of an usurping male deity—has no historical basis whatsoever, regardless of what fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley would like to believe.
Yet it’s still an astonishing book, and one that everyone should read, if only for the glimpse it provides of a matchless poetic intuition at work. Graves’s conclusions may be flawed, but his process is exhilarating, and it yields enough ideas, good or bad, to feed a reader for a lifetime. My own life has certainly been changed by it. In fact, The White Goddess is possibly the single most useful guide by any major author to the role of intuition in imaginative literature. Graves makes a considerable effort to support his conclusions with historical arguments, but the conclusions themselves, he freely admits, were the result of intuition, assisted by moments of scholarly serendipity:
Really, all that I needed to do was verify [my conclusions] textually; and though I had no more than one or two of the necessary books in my very small library the rest were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a second-hand sea-side bookshop.
This is an experience to which any writer can relate: when a project is rolling along, it really does seem as if the entire universe is conspiring in the author’s favor. But Graves takes the argument further:
In fact, it is not too much to say that all original discoveries and inventions and musical and poetic compositions are the result of proleptic thought—the anticipation, by means of a suspension of time, of a result that could not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning—and of what may be called analeptic thought, the recovery of lost events by the same suspension.
While this may sound suspiciously like mysticism, it’s actually a description of a very real phenomenon. In the past, I’ve talked about a number of creative tools—mind maps, intentional randomness with the I Ching and Shakespeare, scene cards—designed to make the creative process more efficient. A solution to a fictional problem that might take days or weeks to solve using a more rational approach can often be solved within minutes using one of these more intuitive methods. And I don’t use these tools for mystical or superstitious reasons: I use them because they work, in the most practical and unsentimental way possible. (Since I currently have just over nine months to take a novel from initial proposal to final draft, I’m going to use whatever methods I can.)
Ideally, as an author continues to grow in craft, such methods become ever more efficient. (I no longer need to spend as much time with my scene cards and mind maps as I once did.) And once the author is sufficiently experienced in intuitive thinking, the tools may be discarded altogether, until the writer simply needs to look at the problem “slantwise,” as Graves puts it. At that point, the time between the posing of a fictional problem and its solution, once measured in days, has been cut down to a matter of seconds. And it isn’t hard to imagine that the lag between problem and solution might occasionally be reduced to less than no time at all—that is, for the writer to discover the solution to a problem that he or she didn’t know existed.
This is how the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton—to use one of Graves’s favorite examples—first intuited the existence of quaternions, as a flash of insight as he was crossing Broom Bridge in Dublin; it’s how Graves had the initial moment of inspiration that led to The White Goddess; and it’s probably how many novelists arrive at their most surprising and unexpected ideas. Such imaginative leaps may seem magical, but in reality, each moment of intuition is the result of a lifetime of preparation—in Graves’s case, as a poet, novelist, and classicist. The White Goddess, for all its shortcomings, is the best record we have of how the process worked for one of the most fertile poetic minds of the twentieth century.