Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Koestler

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 1

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Uri Geller

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.


In the summer of 1974, the Israeli magician and purported psychic Uri Geller arrived at Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury, London, where the physicist David Bohm planned to subject him to a series of tests. Two of the scheduled observers were the writers Arthur Koestler and Arthur C. Clarke, of whom Geller writes in his autobiography:

Arthur Clarke…would be particularly important because he was highly skeptical of anything paranormal. His position was that his books, like 2001 and Childhood’s End, were pure science fiction, and it would be highly unlikely that any of their fantasies would come true, at least in his own lifetime.

Geller met the group in a conference room, where Koestler was cordial, although, Geller says, “I sensed that I really wasn’t getting through to Arthur C. Clarke.” A demonstration seemed to be in order, so Geller asked Clarke to hold one of his own housekeys in one hand, watching it closely to make sure that it wasn’t being swapped out, handled, or subjected to any trickery. Sure enough, the key began to bend. Clarke cried out, in what I like to think was an inadvertent echo of one of his most famous stories: “My God, my eyes are seeing it! It’s bending!”

Geller went on to display his talents in a number of other ways, including forcing a Geiger counter to click at an accelerated rate merely by concentrating on it. (It has been suggested by the skeptic James Randi that Geller had a magnet taped to his leg.) “By that time,” Geller writes, “Arthur Clarke seemed to have lost all his skepticism. He said something like, “My God! It’s all coming true! This is what I wrote about in Childhood’s End. I can’t believe it.” Geller continues:

Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate. When he saw that it was, he told the others: “Look, the magicians and the journalists who are knocking this better put up or shut up now. Unless they can repeat the same things Geller is doing under the same rigidly controlled conditions, they have nothing further to say.”

Clarke also told him about the plot of Childhood’s End, which Geller evidently hadn’t read: “It involves a UFO that is hovering over the earth and controlling it. He had written the book about twenty years ago. He said that, after being a total skeptic about these things, his mind had really been changed by observing these experiments.”

The Horus Errand

It’s tempting to think that Geller is exaggerating the extent of the author’s astonishment, but here’s what Clarke himself wrote about it:

Although it’s hard to focus on that hectic and confusing day at Birkbeck College in 1974…I suspect that Uri Geller’s account in My Story is all too accurate…In view of the chaos at the hastily arranged Birkbeck encounter, the phrase “rigidly controlled conditions” is hilarious. But that last sentence is right on target, for [the reproduction of Geller’s effects by stage magicians] is precisely what happened…Nevertheless, I must confess a sneaking fondness for Uri; though he left a trail of bent cutlery and fractured reputations round the world, he provided much-needed entertainment at a troubled and unhappy time.

Geller has largely faded from the public consciousness, but Clarke—who continued to believe long afterward that paranormal phenomena “can’t all be nonsense”—wasn’t the only science fiction writer to be intrigued by him. Robert Anton Wilson, one of my intellectual heroes, discusses him at length in the book Cosmic Trigger, in which he recounts the strange experience of his friend Saul-Paul Sirag. The year before the Birkbeck tests, Sirag was speaking to Geller when he saw the other man’s head turn into a “bird of prey,” like a hawk: “His nose became a beak, and his entire head sprouted feathers, down to his neck and shoulders.” (Sirag was also taking LSD at the time, which Wilson neglects to mention.) The hawk, Sirag thought, was the form assumed by an extraterrestrial intelligence that was allegedly in contact with Geller, and he didn’t know then that it had appeared in the same shape to two other men, including a psychic named Ray Stanford and another who had nicknamed it “Horus,” after the Egyptian god with a hawk’s head.

It gets weirder. A few months later, Sirag saw the January 1974 issue of Analog, which featured the story “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane. The cover illustration depicted a man wearing a hawklike helmet, with the name “Stanford” written over his breast pocket. According to one of Sirag’s friends, the occultist Alan Vaughan, the character even looked a little like Ray Stanford—and you can judge the resemblance for yourself. Vaughan was interested enough to write to the artist, the legendary Kelly Freas, for more information. (Freas, incidentally, was close friends with John W. Campbell, to the point where Campbell even asked him to serve as the guardian for his two daughters if anything ever happened to him or his wife.) Freas replied that he had never met Stanford in person or knew how he looked, but that he had once received a psychic consultation from him by mail, in which Stanford said that “Freas had been some sort of illustrator in a past life in ancient Egypt.” As a result, Freas began to employ Egyptian imagery more consciously in his work, and the design of the helmet on the cover was entirely his own, without any reference to the story. At that point, the whole thing kind of peters out, aside from serving as an example of the kind of absurd coincidence that was so close to Wilson’s heart. But the intersection of Arthur C. Clarke, Uri Geller, and Robert Anton Wilson at that particular moment in time is a striking one, and it points toward an important thread in the history of science fiction that tends to be overlooked or ignored. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing more about what it all means, along with a few other ominous hawks.

The scribbling machine

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Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond

Yesterday, I came across a fascinating account of the writing process of Charles Darwin, which he originally published as part of a short memoir of his life. Darwin notes that writing has never been easy for him, which has “the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about very sentence,” allowing him to see errors in his own work. He continues:

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.

Darwin, in short, understood the value of an ugly first draft. You often get better results by scribbling down the whole thing “in a vile hand,” and then going back to revise it, than by laboring over each sentence before moving onto the next. And Darwin made a point of doing this at a time when it was much harder to crank out pages at a rapid pace than it is now.

It’s tempting—maybe too tempting—to draw parallels between Darwin’s creative process and that of natural selection itself. When you write a draft as quickly as possible, you introduce elements of chance: an awkward phrase, a sentence fragment that leads nowhere, or a typographical error can generate unexpected trains of thought. Even the appearance of the words on the page can direct your thinking along new lines. They’re all forms of random variation, and even if only one out of ten survives to the rewrite stage, it’s still worth it. But they only come into existence if the process of composition is loose and messy enough, which doesn’t happen when you work out each sentence before writing it down. There’s also a kind of momentum that results when you push against the physical limits of the medium, which forces you to draw on muscle memory. Darwin, as I’ve noted elsewhere, was a tactile thinker. To compare the area of geological formations on a topographical map, he cut them out with scissors and weighed them. He tickled aphids with a fine hair and made artificial leaves for earthworms by rubbing triangular pieces of paper with raw fat. A lot of this is simple experimental ingenuity, but there’s also a real sense in which Darwin thought with his eyes and hands. Writing as much down as rapidly as you can gives your eyes and hands a central role in the writing process. It introduces a few more collaborators, and thereby another source of variation.

Charles Darwin

And this is particularly important for projects that require you to master a large body of factual material. The section of Darwin’s essay that I found most interesting was the one that treated the problem of information management. Here’s how you did it in the nineteenth century:

Having said thus much about my manner of writing, I will add that with my large books I spend a good deal of time over the general arrangement of the matter. I first make the rudest outline in two or three pages, and then a larger one in several pages, a few words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often transferred before I begin to write in extenso. As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

Darwin had to be a master of organization to assemble the facts that he needed to make his argument, but he didn’t try to keep all of it in his brain at once—he reviewed his personal indexes and compiled a more general one before starting to write. But he also had to remain receptive to overall patterns. Attention to fine detail is important, but it also tends to limit our ability to see connections, as Gertrude Himmelfarb, one of Darwin’s biographers, points out:

His colleagues, the systematizers, knew more than he about particular species and varieties, comparative anatomy and morphology…It was with the sharp eyes of the primitive, the open mind of the innocent, that he looked at his subject, daring to ask questions that his more learned and sophisticated colleagues could not have thought to ask.

The result, which Arthur Koestler calls Darwin’s “amiable credulity,” was a strategy, conscious or otherwise, to preserve an awareness of the whole while focusing on the parts, which may be the hardest creative balancing act of all. His messy first drafts, which naturally led him to think in larger structural units, were another way in. Later in the same essay, Darwin writes: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” And it was a machine that only worked because it knew how to scribble.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2016 at 8:34 am

Asimov’s ABCs

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Isaac Asimov

By now, many of you have probably already seen the previously unpublished essay on creativity by Isaac Asimov that appeared last week in Technology Review. We owe its appearance to Arthur Obermayer, who worked for Allied Research Associates in Boston and asked Asimov, a friend of his, to sit in on some of their brainstorming sessions. Asimov eventually declined to participate further, saying that receiving access to classified information would inhibit his work as a writer, but he left behind a short piece on creative thinking and the conditions that encourage it, both individually and in groups. It’s a charming, useful read, and it centers on a point that I’ve made here many times before:

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected…Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious.

Asimov mentions the famous example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently saw a connection between Malthus’s “Essay on Population” and the problem of evolution, inspiring Thomas Henry Huxley to exclaim: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” This kind of thinking by combinations, or what Arthur Koestler calls “bisociation” in The Act of Creation, lies at the heart of all creativity, and that’s as much the case today as when Asimov was writing. Earlier this year, for instance, the lab headed by Eric Betzig—who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month—announced an approach for improving the resolution and speed of microscopy images, using adaptive optics techniques that had originally been developed for astronomy and ophthalmology. Much of Betzig’s work over the last decade has consisted of taking cues from one field and joining them to another: “We combined the descan concept from the ophthalmologists with the laser guide stars of the astronomers, and came up with what amounts to a really good solution for aberrating but non-scattering transparent samples, like the zebrafish.”

Eric Betzig

These days, most scientific breakthroughs don’t arise in isolation, but through an intense collaborative process: the original paper cited above lists eight authors, headed by postdoctoral student Kai Wang and ending with Betzig himself. At times, as Asimov points out, stimulating connections can only emerge from an environment in which intelligent people have a chance to exchange ideas:

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield as answer.

The problem, of course, is that such ideas or connections don’t come on demand, and the pressure to show results, in academia and elsewhere, can inhibit the kind of relaxed, associative contemplation that inspiration requires. As Asimov notes: “To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time, either.” He goes on to suggest that the thinkers be officially paid for “sinecure” tasks—reports, summaries, and other busywork—so that brainstorming sessions can occur without the additional distraction that arises when one’s livelihood is directly on the line. In other words, he proposes a model that allows for extended rendering time, those amorphous, sometimes unproductive, but always essential stretches of apparent inactivity that allow ideas to coalesce. (It’s the opposite, in fact, of the kind of intense focus on short-term results that drives so much of startup culture.) There’s no surefire recipe for innovation; insights, especially those that make connections between unrelated fields, don’t arrive on schedule. But it’s only by creating an environment in which such connections can emerge, and having the patience to wait, that we can come up with any insights at all.

The act of combination

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Twyla Tharp

In the empty room you’re trying to connect the dots, linking A to B to C to maybe come up with H. Scratching is a means to identifying A, and if you can get to A, you’ve got a grip on a slippery rock wall. You’ve got purchase. You can move on to B, which is mandatory. You cannot stop with one idea. You don’t really have a workable idea until you combine two ideas.

Twyla Tharp

I have coined the term “bisociation” in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking in a single “plane,” as it were, and the creative act, which, as I shall try to show, always operates on more than one plane.

Arthur Koestler

If there is any novelty in the suggestion I am about to make—and I must confess I fear there is—it lies only in the juxtaposition of ideas.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Henri Poincaré

Every day I seated myself at my work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations, and reached no results. One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.

Henri Poincaré

Scientists who have made important original contributions have often had wide interests or have taken up the study of a subject different from the one in which they were originally trained. Originality often consists in finding connections or analogies between two or more objects or ideas not previously shown to have any bearing on each other.

W.I.B. Beveridge

It is obvious that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas.

Jacques Hadamard

Jacques Derrida

The philosopher must form a new combination of ideas concerning the combination of ideas.

Jacques Derrida

The essential possibility of [metaphor] lies in the broad ontological fact that new qualities and new meanings can emerge, simply come into being, out of some hitherto ungrouped combination of elements.

Philip Wheelwright

Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another in a beaten track of habitual suggestion, we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, the most rarefied abstractions and discriminations, the most unheard of combination of elements, the subtlest associations of analogy; in a word, we seem suddenly introduced into a seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbling about in a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant, treadmill routine is unknown, and the unexpected seems only law.

William James

The secret of the Khazars

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Image of Khazar and captive

As I’ve noted here before, when you write the first novel in what turns out to be a series, the possibilities are limitless, but for each subsequent installment, you find yourself increasingly hedged in by what came before, and not necessarily in a bad way. The Icon Thief and its first sequel were more loosely connected than most: the primary protagonist doesn’t reappear, the setting is very different, and many of the central motifs have changed. City of Exiles is less of a conspiracy novel and more of a straightforward international thriller, and in order for the two books to feel tonally consistent, I knew I’d have to reproduce some of the first book’s less obvious elements in a somewhat different form. I’d structure the plot, as before, around an unexplained historical mystery; Russia and the interlocking worlds of intelligence and organized crime would still drive the story; and, more subtly, I wanted to reintroduce a thread of Jewish mysticism. This last element played a more subdued role in The Icon Thief, but it was so intuitively appropriate to the kinds of stories I was telling—with their themes of close reading and interpretation—that I wanted to expand it in the sequel.

In City of Exiles, this took the form of an extended exploration of the vision of Ezekiel, which has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in The White Goddess by Robert Graves. For Eternal Empire, I wanted to write about something similar, although at reduced length, just as I knew that I’d need to revisit other themes from the previous novels. At first, I thought it would be easy. I’ve been interested in Jewish mysticism and the rabbinical tradition for most of my life, and in Ilya, I had a character whose thoughts could take the story in any direction I wanted. From this rich reservoir of potential material, I finally decided, almost at random, to insert a thread about the Urim and Thummim, the mysterious stones, kept in the breastplate of the high priest, that were evidently used for divination by the ancient Israelites. I chose them because they were inherently interesting, would allow me to draw on some intriguing sources, and were relatively unexplored in the kind of novel I was writing, although there have been a few attempts to put them at the center of an Indiana Jones-type adventure. What I had in mind was something else, a kind of thematic counterpoint to the main action, similar to the role that Ezekiel’s chariot had played in the previous book.

A page from Dictionary of the Khazars

I began, as always, by doing a lot of reading, including Cornelis Van Dam’s excellent recent study of the subject, and I ended up with what I’d like to think is a plausible, evocative, and novel interpretation of the Urim and Thummim. And I’d love to use it someday. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the topic, while compelling, just didn’t work for the purpose I’d intended. Even now, I’m not entirely sure why: I suspect that it was probably too remote from the underlying story, and the thematic resonance I needed just wasn’t there. As a result, I found myself switching gears after I’d already written half the novel. Casting about for another subject, I hit on the story of the Khazars, which had been on my mind for a long time. The Khazars were a tribe of horsemen who, at their peak, dominated much of Central Asia during the Dark Ages, serving as a kind of bulwark between Byzantium and the Arab empires. At some point, remarkably, they underwent a mass conversion to Judaism, forming the first authentically Jewish kingdom since the time of the Bible. The details of the conversion are still unclear: it may have been a politically motivated decision, allowing them to build a more organized religious society while remaining independent of their Christian and Muslim neighbors. Or, as I argue in Eternal Empire, it may have been something else. In any case, nobody knows: Russia ultimately wiped the Khazars off the map, and aside from a few scattered artifacts, nothing of their kingdom remains.

Of course, I’m not the first novelist to be drawn to this story, and one of my secret motivations for writing about it was the excuse to finally read Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, an extraordinary book that now ranks among my ten favorite novels of all time. (My other primary source was Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe, mostly because I find Koestler interesting as a writer, although I’m aware that his conclusions about the Khazars—he argues that they were the true ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews—are highly controversial.) And while I knew from the start that my take on the subject wouldn’t be nearly as rich as Pavic’s, I could tell that I’d made the right choice. Ilya Severin, the Jewish thief and former assassin who stands at the center of the trilogy, is also known as the Scythian, a name I gave him because of its historical connotations: the nomadic Scythians have always been central to the Russian imagination, to which they represent the forces of the East fighting with the culture of the West for control of the nation’s destiny. The same conflict plays out within Ilya, on a smaller scale, but I’d always felt guilty that I’d never made the connection between him and the Khazars, who lived and died in the same land as the Scythians. In Eternal Empire, Ilya says as much: “Given the choice, I would rather have been a Khazar.” And now, at last, he’ll have his chance.

The Layla effect

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Derek and the Dominos

I don’t think there’s a more powerful moment in all of rock music than the transition between the two halves of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. For three minutes, we’ve been living near the heart of a man’s romantic and sexual agony: the critic Dave Marsh calls it one of those rare songs in which “a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide.” Then there’s a trailing off, a pause, and we’re launched into Jim Gordon’s transcendent piano coda, which takes over the rest of the track and leads us triumphantly to the end. It’s unclear how the two halves are meant to relate, or whether the coda is the sound of love fulfilled or abandoned, but the juxtaposition of the two movements creates an effect that is far more profound than either of them taken separately. The result is a song that has obsessed me—and so many others—from the moment I first heard it, to the point where I’ve written much of my current novel with “Layla” playing in the background.

This sort of synergy, in which two seemingly unrelated components are set side by side to create a larger whole, is such a powerful artistic tool that it deserves special consideration. Some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, from “Hey Jude” to “Dry the Rain,” consist of two contrasting halves joined together in a way that only seems more mysterious with time. In many cases, the pieces weren’t originally meant to go together at all: the piano coda to “Layla” was composed as a separate piece, and was joined to the first half—which had already been written and recorded—when Clapton happened to hear Gordon playing it in the studio one day. These sorts of decisions may seem like serendipity, but they’re really an expression of craft on a deeper level: I suspect that Clapton intuitively sensed that the song was incomplete without some form of resolution, and that he seized on the coda as the missing piece he needed, precisely because it seemed like a dispatch from a different world entirely.

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

We see this effect in other forms of art as well. I mentioned recently that many of Shakespeare’s most resonant plots—from The Merchant of Venice to King Lear—arise from the combination or juxtaposition of two previously unrelated storylines. There’s no better example of this than The Winter’s Tale, the most beautiful and mysterious of the late romances, which moves from a tragedy of sexual jealousy in Sicily to the gentlest of pastoral comedies in Bohemia. (It’s a transition that may work better on the page than in performance: the production I saw several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Sam Mendes, did a fine job with the tormented first half, but turned the second half into an aimless hootenanny. As usual, comedy is harder to stage than tragedy, and this is never more clear than when one follows right after the other.) On a more calculated level, we find a similar transition halfway through Psycho: I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still get a chill when I first glimpse the sign of the Bates Motel through the rain, which reminds me of which movie I’m really watching.

On one level, the impact of such juxtapositions is easy to explain: creativity, as Arthur Koestler points out in The Act of Creation, is about combinations, and when two contrasting pieces are set side by side, it’s no surprise that elements of the first half can bring out unsuspected qualities of the other. (You often see this in visual art, which has long been familiar with the power of the diptych.) But that doesn’t tell us why the pieces can vibrate so memorably in certain cases, while in others they just tend to lie there—or why two unrelated pieces are so much more effective than three, even as the rule of three works so powerfully in other contexts. A work of three parts, with its tidy tripod of effects, can come across as a piece of artistic calculation, or like the three stages of an argument, while two implies something deeper. There’s no better example than Chungking Express, with its two parallel stories of policemen in love: Wong Kar-Wai originally planned to tell three, but only had time for two, an accident for which we can all be profoundly grateful. Three stories would have come across as a narrative device, while two seem like life itself, and like the coda for “Layla,” it feels as if it could go on and on.

The amiable credulity of Charles Darwin

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A contemporary biologist has commented on Darwin’s “amiable credulity.” It is a character trait which he shared with Tycho, Kepler, Freud, Pasteur, and a large number of other great scientists. Ernest Jones remarked in an essay about Freud that creative genius seems to be a mixture of skepticism and naïveté: skepticism regarding the dogmas implied in traditional modes of thought, combined with the willingness of a wide-open mind to consider far-fetched theories. Darwin himself, as one of his biographers remarked, “was able to give ultimate answers because he asked ultimate questions. His colleagues, the systematizers, knew more than he about particular species and varieties, comparative anatomy and morphology. But they had deliberately eschewed such ultimate questions as the pattern of creation, or the reasons for any particular form, on the grounds that these were not the proper subjects of science. Darwin, uninhibited by these restrictions, could range more widely and deeply into the mysteries of Nature….It was with the sharp eyes of the primitive, the open mind of the innocent, that he looked at his subject, daring to ask questions that his more learned and sophisticated colleagues could not have thought to ask.”

Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2012 at 9:50 am

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