Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Needham

Science and civilization

with 3 comments

Over the last week, I picked up two books—at the annual Newberry Library and Oak Park Public Library book sales, which are always a high point of my year—that I’d been hoping to find for a long time. One is a single volume, Civil Engineering and Nautics, of Joseph Needham’s landmark Science and Civilization in China, which currently consists of twenty-seven huge books that I all unreasonably hope to own one day. The other is a slim fascicle, or paperbound installment from a work in progress, from Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, which, if we’re lucky, will release its fourth volume sometime in the next decade. These two projects are rather different in scale, but remarkably similar in their conception and incubation. Needham worked on his book for close to half a century without finishing it, and Knuth has been laboring on his for even longer, with no obvious end in sight. I’ve been intrigued by such grand projects for most of my life, but I’ve become even more interested after embarking on my own venture into nonfiction. Replace “computer programming” with “science fiction” and “discovered” with “written,” and what Knuth once said in an interview gets very close to my attitude two years ago when I started writing Astounding:

At the time, everybody I knew who could write a book summarizing what was known about computer programming had discovered quite a lot of the ideas themselves…By contrast, I hadn’t really discovered anything new by myself at that point. I was just a good writer…I had this half-conceited and half-unconceited view that I could explain it more satisfactorily than the others because of my lack of bias. I didn’t have any axes to grind but my own.

Knuth concludes: “Then, of course, as I started to write things I naturally discovered one or two new things as I went, and now I am just as biased as anybody.” Which pretty sums up my experience, too.

And what really fascinates me about both projects is how monstrously these tomes grew past their projected dimensions, both in space and in time. Both Needham and Knuth thought at first that their work would fit within a single volume, and although they each expanded it to the magic number of seven, neither seems to have grasped just how long it would take. Knuth recalls:

My original motivation was to write a text about how to write compilers, so I began drafting chapters. I was seriously planning to finish the book before my son was born…In June 1965, I had finally finished the first draft of the twelve chapters. It amounted to three thousand handwritten pages of manuscript…I figured about five pages of my handwriting would be about one page of a book.

As it turned out, he was a little off: the real proportion was one and a half handwritten pages to a single page in type, which meant that he had already written two thousand pages without even getting past the subject of compilers. Needham had a similar moment of clarity. As Simon Winchester writes in his biography The Man Who Loved China:

Needham had decreed early on in the process, as he watched each volume begin to swell and threaten to burst out of its covers, that no one volume should be “too big for a man to read comfortably in his bath.” But it was happening nonetheless…One book became two, three, or four. Volume V, a special case, became not five, but thirteen formal subsidiary parts, each one of them big and complicated enough to be made into a separate, self-standing, and equally enormous new volume of its own.

It’s frankly hard to imagine reading any of these expensive books in the tub, but Needham says elsewhere, more realistically, that critics found the volumes “too heavy and bulky for meditative evening reading,” which led to the work being repeatedly subdivided.

The Art of Computer Programming was released by a commercial educational publisher, Addison-Wesley, but it isn’t surprising that most such books tend to appear at academic presses, which are the only institutions capable of sustaining a project that lasts for decades. (Their sole competition here might be the Catholic Church, which has been underwriting a critical edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas since 1879. They’re about halfway through.) Winchester refers in passing to “the beleaguered Cambridge University Press, which was obliged to tolerate the constant expansion of the project,” and for the full picture, you can turn to the book A Skeptic Among Scholars, by August Frugé, the director of the University of California Press. He writes of The Plan of St. Gall, a three-volume monument of scholarship that is probably the most beautiful book I own:

The St. Gall manuscript…was said in 1960 to be in semifinal draft, about one hundred and fifty pages in length. When approved by the Editorial Committee and accepted by me in 1967, it came to several hundred typed pages, about right for a single quarto volume. As the work moved through the production process during the next twelve years, we paused every now and then to call for new estimates of size and cost, and each time discovered that new sections had been added, along with a few dozen new diagrams and drawings.

At one point, concerns about cost threatened to derail the whole enterprise, and Frugé retired before the three huge folios were published. James H. Clark, his successor, saw it to completion, writing later: “But what is a university press for if not to take these kinds of risks, make these investments, and publish books that make a difference?” Aside from Knuth, one of the few comparable examples on the commercial side must be Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which was originally planned as three volumes to be written over about six years. Forty years and four books later, Caro still isn’t done, and the fact that he has been allowed to keep working at the same methodical pace is a tribute to his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf.

And if there’s one key takeaway from the examples I’ve mentioned, it’s that none of these authors set out to devote their lives to these projects—they all thought at first that they could finish it within a few years. Knuth recalls:

It gradually dawned on me how large a project this was going to be. If I had realized that at the beginning, I wouldn’t have been foolish enough to start; I wouldn’t have dared to tackle such a thing…[But] I had collected so much material that I felt it was my duty to continue with the project even though it would take a lot longer than I had originally expected.

You also realize that you can’t explain the subject at hand without covering a lot of other material first. Caro treats his books on Johnson as windows onto such vistas as local politics, Texas, and the Senate, which is a big part of their appeal. (The equivalent in my case would be deciding that I couldn’t write the life of John W. Campbell in a comprehensible form without telling the entire history of science fiction, too, which might well be true.) Frugé, perhaps to his credit, ventures a more cynical reading:

In my skeptical and perhaps scatterbrained way, I sometimes wonder how a research scholar can work on the same project decade after decade and retain faith in its intellectual importance. Perhaps some do not, and that is why their books are never completed. But we can also observe an opposite phenomenon. As the years go by the object or document for study may swell and expand in importance until—until, for example, “The Plan of St. Gall is…one of the most fascinating creations of the human mind.”

He makes a good point. The cycle feeds on itself, with the work expanding in scope to justify the amount of time it takes. It’s human nature, and there’s something a little absurd about it. But it’s also the only way we get art, science, or civilization.

The switch point

leave a comment »

“I’ll tell you a thing that will shock you,” Anthony Burgess once said in an interview with Writers Digest in the late seventies. “It will certainly shock the readers of Writer’s Digest.” Here it is:

What I often do nowadays when I have to, say, describe a room, is to take a page of a dictionary, any page at all, and see if with the words suggested by that one page in the dictionary I can build up a room, build up a scene. This is the kind of puzzle that interests me, keeps me going, and it will even suggest how to describe a girl’s hair, at least some of it will come, but I must keep to that page.

Burgess went on to reveal that a description of a hotel vestibule in his novel M/F was based on a page in W.J. Wilkinson’s Malay English Dictionary, although nobody seemed to have noticed this. He concluded:

The thing you see, it suggests what pictures are on the wall, what color somebody’s wearing, and as most things in life are arbitrary anyway, you’re not doing anything naughty, you’re really normally doing what nature does, you’re just making an entity out of the elements. I do recommend it to young writers.

I love this little trick for two reasons. One is that it’s a convenient way to conduct a raid on the random using nothing but the materials on your desk, which is exactly where you’re most likely to need it. The other is that it only works with the dictionary, rather than with a novel or work of nonfiction. As soon as you’re looking at words that have been chosen by another writer, you inevitably get tangled up with an exterior consciousness. With the dictionary, the only meaning there is the one you extract from it, and it helps that we’re dealing with two levels of impersonal structure—alphabetical order and the slice created by the boundaries of the page. I’m reminded of my favorite description of Buckminster Fuller going over his page proofs:

Galleys galvanize Fuller partly because of the large visual component of his imagination. The effect is reflexive: his imagination is triggered by what the eye frames in front of him. It was the same with manuscript pages: he never liked to turn them over or continue to another sheet. Page = unit of thought. So his mind was retriggered with every galley and its quite arbitrary increment of thought from the composing process.

The key phrase here is “quite arbitrary.” As Burgess puts it: “I must keep to that page.” Total freedom can lead to total paralysis, and simply limiting your options is a form of liberation.

That’s true of nearly every creative strategy, of course, but there’s a deeper point to be made here about the movement from order to disorder to order again. The most useful sources of randomness tend to be works that are rigorously organized. A dictionary is an obvious example, but an even greater one is the I Ching, which is so conceptually perfect that it may actually have retarded the development of Chinese civilization. As the historian Joseph Needham wrote:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system…The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for “routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.”

Yet if the I Ching was limiting when taken as a system of thought, that’s also why it made such a good oracle. You don’t get useful results by looking for randomness in chaos, but by taking an existing order, extracting an arbitrary piece of it, and then using it to create something orderly on the other side. It’s the series of switch points that matters. Going from structure to randomness to structure again is more productive than pursuing either extreme on its own, because it’s in those moments of transition that the mind awakens to itself.

Economists speak of the negative impact of “switching costs,” but in creative thinking, it’s usually the act of switching—along with the act of combination—that generates ideas. Not surprisingly, most artists find that they’ve built switch points into their process, even if it isn’t entirely conscious. If you switch too often, you never settle into a groove, but if you don’t switch at all, you end up in a rut. And that rhythm of alternation, as well as the state of mind that it creates, may matter more in the long run than any particular method you use. It has affinities with the concept of dialectic, in which thinking is structured as the movement from thesis to antithesis to a synthesis of the two, and it gets results because of the regular switch points that it demands. I don’t think it’s an accident that dialectic was embraced as a tool by the Surrealists and the Dadaists, who took a systematic approach to cultivating the irrational. In one of Antonin Artaud’s letters, we read the very exciting sentence: “Dialectics is the art of considering ideas from every conceivable point of view—it is a method of distributing ideas.” And Tristan Tzara may have gotten even closer to the truth: “The dialectic is an amusing mechanism which guides us—in a banal kind of way—to the opinions we had in the first place.” He’s right to call it banal, but it can also be hard to figure out what we already believe, and the switch point has a way of clarifying this. It can result in a philosophy of life, or it can take the form of an ad hoc trick, like Burgess and his dictionary. But we all end up with our own strategies for producing it, and we may not even have a choice. As Trotsky is supposed to have said: “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2017 at 8:54 am

The Book of Changes

with 2 comments

The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

%d bloggers like this: