Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Intuition and the White Goddess

with 11 comments

The poet Robert Graves

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.

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2010 at 9:19 am

11 Responses

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  1. I don’t know what you’re trying to say about quaternions. Of course, if you have the matrix it’s a whole lot easier. That’s not a joke, really, it isn’t. It should also be pointed out that quaternions failed to do what they were supposed to. I’m not sure that it’s quite “intuition” in either case, but I am with you on the situated/place-based flashes of what I’d call insight, as my own creative process usually occurs while I’m walking.


    December 27, 2010 at 10:00 am

  2. I actually have no idea what a quaternion is.


    December 27, 2010 at 10:09 am

  3. Allow me to complexify it! No, really, just a generalization of the complex numbers to a four dimensional space, but of course this is only possible because of the four-squares theorem. Ask Noah. This was an entire course we took called “SOS”.


    December 27, 2010 at 1:43 pm

  4. Wow—mind maps!


    December 27, 2010 at 11:07 pm

  5. Meh. Let me now make an I, Carly joke.


    December 28, 2010 at 2:36 am

  6. Alec, what made you change your mind about Graves’s central argument and what convinced you that there is no historical basis whatsoever? BTW, thanks for a great page on Graves.


    December 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm

  7. There was no particular moment—just a growing awareness of the scholarly consensus on the history of religion, and, more importantly, of how much Graves’s conclusions can be explained as the result of his phenomenal poetic ingenuity. If anything, it makes me respect his brilliance even more than before.


    December 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm

  8. I too read White Goddess as a teenager: and dipped into it regularly ever since (we’re talking half a century at this point). Although I did not become a steadfast devotee–I savored his premise (realizing it was at least as much speculation as “truth”).Can something of such poetic power not possess a smidgeon of truth, ask I?

    Surely that ubiquity of Mother Goddess statuary in Neolithic Europe must be very hard evidence on Graves; behalf. The much greater egalitarian status of women in all “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies likewise speaks to the truth of the premise: Now that the date of the domestication of the first horse (in the fourth Millenium B.C. has been so wonderfully documented in “The Horse, the Wheel and Language” it seems to me to provide pretty clear vindication of Graves’ premise: One can easily see how a small tribe of proto-Indo Europeans (one of many) could quickly overwhelm and absorb the hundreds of surrounding tribes, leading not only to the worldwide hegemony of Indo-European languages on Planet Earth, but supplanting the chthonal cultural and religious beliefs of the original European cultures, which evidence seems to suggest were often if not always matriarchal in structure. I’d say the current anthropological pciture is right outta White Goddess, I reckon.


    September 29, 2014 at 4:32 am

  9. nice post..can’t tell how old it is…came to it wondering again about these words Graves coined, ‘analaptec’ and ‘prolaptec’, memory of past, and future…I just came from looking at a list of time travel science fiction books…one, Time Travel Times Three, think I have that title right, maybe it was Thrice Upon a Time, and in the synopsis I find that the story wasn’t about traveling physically, but rather about a machine that could send messages via small atomic particles, maybe your ‘quartinos’, back through time…or forward from the past too I imagine, though the story doesn’t use that notion…just in the news is a magnetic ‘wormhole’ experiment, which is unrelated, but I happen on the notion that communication at a great distance across space is imagined often..a staple of sci fi, along with faster than light travel, and the reach here is for a notion of communication across distant times…of course such communication would wreck havoc, the plot of the story, and in many like in the Terminator movies…seeing here, T4?, the scene where, forget the hero’s name, is listening to a tape recording by his mom…those tapes to him are a bit like his Bible…and the Bible is full of precognitions, which is the word Graves should have used for memory of the future…he liked to tweak things!…Pentecost, I learn from just the search before finding your site, means fifty, and is a holiday celebrating fifty days after Easter, the death of Christ, and commemorates the inspiration of the disciples by the Holy Ghost, and marks the beginning of the Christian Church…I was wondering about the fifty Nerieds last night, and Jason’s fifty oarsman, and was wondering why the number fifty in the old myths has such a ring to it for me, and realized, fifty reminds me of the fifty states currently in the United States…which is silly, but I used the thought to find how someone in the past might lace stories with hints of things to come, clues as it were for the future, with ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ to pick up on…oh…I’m thinking ‘aloud’ here about a post to my blog!…Graves had a time travel book, ‘Seven Days in New Crete’ or ‘Watch the North Wind Rise’…he tweaked a few things!…hmmph…now I’m puzzling over ‘seven’!



    August 22, 2015 at 12:56 pm

  10. @David: I hadn’t heard of Seven Days in New Crete—thanks for the tip!


    September 6, 2015 at 2:26 pm

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