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Friday, April 08, 2011


Problems, Problems, Problems!!

"Italy for thirty years under the Borgias had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but produced Michelangelo, DaVinci, and the Renaissance. And Switzerland had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
Orson Welles from the 1949 motion picture "The Third Man"

Life was brutal, short, and demanding in every way; and all you could look forward to were problems. Ironically, problems were the good part. And life didn’t start out easy either. Born with a flaw, and you were put on a ledge to die of exposure. Born female or on the wrong side of the tracks, and you became child bearing chattel, or worse, just chattel. For the lucky few, who amounted to just 40,000 or so, life was the ultimate do it yourself course. There were no enclyopedias, few books, and nature was explained through tall tales, or failing in that, merely improvised. Computers, phones, TV’s, or even printing presses were not even dreams. Libraries had at most just a few dozen manuscripts, and when you said scroll down, it was that scroll, down there. Your peers were ornery, greedy, and selfish, and coveted their neighbors goods, wives, and just about anything that wasn’t tied down.

So what could possibly be the saving grace of this mean and miserable world? It was that people wanted things from you, and survival demanded even more. With no police, you learned how to defend yourself. With no lawyers, you had to learn to speak for yourself. With no entertainment, you had to create your own. With no philosophy, you had to think for yourself. With no science, you had to make up your own hypotheses. With no professional sports, your strength and dexterity would be tested. You had to use your wits, survive by them, or die if they failed you.

Life was nothing but problems, but problems by their very nature imply solutions. If you can think or imagine a way out, you will keep alert, aroused, and ready to create ever new and different solutions. In difficult times, creativity after all finds a way. And what serves for the memory of posterity? It is hardly the problems. Rather, we salute the solutions, which are fixed in cultural memory as monuments of art, music, literature, philosophy, or stone. But what is to be said of the origins of the problems themselves? Could it be inspiration, character, a heavenly muse, or maybe just the water?

Perhaps that is the half-legacy of Ancient Greece. The products of inspiration come to us as literary and artistic fossils, but the environment that nurtured them is burned away, and exists only in pottery shards and tumbled marble columns. And like fossils, we know them mainly from museum trips and coffee table books. The Greek world is dead, skeletal, fit for the musing of scholars, but meaning nothing to a workaday world that could hardly be distracted.

Greek science is outdated, its dramas unplayed, its art pinned to walls and shelves like dead butterflies, and its philosophy mainly the stuff of college courses. But why in heavens do we love and admire it, and why would many of us give our eye teeth to sit around a rock to hear Socrates argue, Plato expound, Demosthenes orate, or witness a drama by Euripedes? It certainly isn’t the setting, for there are lots of places to be found without phones or working toilets without having to jump into a time machine.

It is because you want to be mixed with the human bustle, a time of a flux of ideas, of demand, of competition. And the Greeks were nothing if not competitive. In fact they put an element of competition into everything they did. Like a gambler who would take bets on whether the sun would rise again in the morning, the Greeks made learning, entertainment, and art a competitive affair, and reveled in the intellectual competition involving ideas, art, politics, and science.

Now the Greek ‘experience’ was a brief moment in history, isolated in a small rocky peninsula the size of the state of Maine, and driven by a privileged social class who would scarcely populate a medium sized American city. But the marvel is not what they created, but the broad possibilities of creation even when creation is compelled for and by a few. Whether the Greek drive to create was due to an accident of geography, social tradition, economic or military competition, it speaks volumes for the capabilities of the human mind when the mind is set upon to solve problems.

The great artistic accomplishments of Greek civilization, as well as the Renaissance, and Elizabethan civilizations that followed were created by relatively small communities made isolate by social stratification, geography, or national persona. That these communities demanded much, and ever sharpened their expectations, underlined a social ethos that valued the creation as well as resolution of problems. But these cultures are but exceptional players in the cultural tapestry of history. Society as a whole generally abhors any problems outside of the ones that impede survival. Generally, it’s best to keep problems to a minimum, an unspoken wisdom that is accepted to this day.

But what do we mean by a ‘trouble free’ society? To find its exemplar, let’s move forward hundreds of years into the future. In these more modern times, one superpower spread across the continent. Governed by a cantankerous and corruptible senate, ruled by sound laws, and unified by a common language and good roads that allowed one to travel from sea to sea without a stoplight. It had its own civil war before it was united under an august hand to enter a golden age of prosperity, and was pestered and inspired by a Christianity that was very fundamental. Along the way, it secured its freedom after fighting a series of wars with the Germans, and kept armies in central Europe to keep the peace. As time went on it needed more immigrants to keep industry and agriculture humming, and secure in the knowledge of their own greatness, its people settled back to enjoy themselves.

Its entertainment was simple, violent, and on the whole moronic. The theatres were emptied by the lure of nonstop sporting events, and vainly tried to lure the masses back by plots that included a lurid mix of sex and violence. Gambling was everywhere, pornography flourished, and it was a fashion among ‘holy’ men to predict the end of the world. No one wanted anything from you except a day’s labor. Value was denoted in what you could produce, everything else was mere diversion. Economic value was thus the measure of man. Sports and military heroes were idols of the general public, and intellectuals stayed in their circles, and barely nudged common opinion. It was a society that largely forgot its past because it had none. Its cultural accomplishments were as empty and ephemeral as yesterday’s fall TV schedule, but without memory, even transitory pleasures could seem important and eternal. So the illusion went on for hundreds of years, and when this society exhausted itself on its own banality, it was replaced by cultures that were similarly driven and dissatisfied by a quest for ‘no problems’.

This example of a problem free society was of course Rome in its ‘golden’ age. From 27 BC to 180 AD, the Roman Empire spanned a continent, and was a thousand times richer, more populous, and secure than Periclean Athens. But for all its potential, the two hundred-year golden age of Rome was a cultural desert, and all that comes down to us from an empire that lasted in told some 700 years is a tiny scattering of writers, a talent for engineering, and a penchant for big government. This of course may be an elitist condemnation. After all, perhaps bread and circuses are the way to go. Certainly the race, if the measure of its mind was gauged by the preponderance of current tastes, would gladly sacrifice a Mozart symphony for an album by Britney Spears, and a Michelangelo sculpture for the sculpted frame of a new SUV.

We are as cavalier and negligent with the totems of our culture as the Middle Age Italians who dug up and burned ancient statuary for their lime. And like rain forests, we would nonchalantly burn them to ash if they afforded us a moment’s warmth. The reason of course is that we have never learned to see anything in them, or note the problems they pose to us. But why in heaven would we do so if we already know the answers, or more importantly, if no one demands answers from us?

A popular culture that bestows the title of ‘artist’ or ‘philosopher’ to every garage trained drummer, romance novelist, abstract painter, political pundit, or pop psychologist ultimately displays not its interest, but its indifference. When the problems of existence and of beauty are reduced to platitudes, simple maxims and redundant formulae, then all we have left is bread and circuses. Whether the products of popular culture are right or wrong, beautiful or ugly is really not the point. It is rather that as they fail to challenge us, they rapidly fade to dullness. And creativity, by definition, is a very stimulating thing. But again, creativity is not quite the word for it, because creativity does not exist.

The World as DVR

Consider a DVR. We know its purpose, generally, but knowing all that it can do and how it works is a different matter. Let’s say that we get one of these devices as a gift. Would we be the better for it if it came with instructions, or if it did not? Of course, we would all generally answer in the affirmative. Better to know how a machine works rather than trouble ourselves with figuring it out on our own. So instructions in hand, we quickly learn how to schedule and record programs, record from our video camera, skip commercials, and use the remote control. Without the instructions, it’s an entirely different matter. We are forced to rapidly note the correlations between pressing this button and that, and the mix and match of different features and their infinite permutations. In the first case, using a DVR is an easy and explainable thing, and all of its different functions can be mapped to a list of simple instructions. In the second case, the DVR is a difficult and perhaps incomprehensible thing, and how we come about learning its uses and how to use it derives less from method than inspiration. In the first case, understanding follows from the rote memorization of rules, and in the second case, understanding can only be the product of a creative mind.

If all the products of culture from assembling bicycles to composing symphonies could be derived from lists of rules, then we would be no more justified in labeling them creative than we would the calculated sum produced by an adding machine. Whether the results of the calculation were new, beautiful, useful, or even revealed the nature of the cosmos and existence itself, they wouldn’t be creative because the process behind that calculation would be known. So creativity is at root an unintelligible and vicarious process. Ordinarily, unintelligible processes are something we shun, as common sense tells us we should. But evolution has conspired to imbue in us an abhorrence of listless and all encompassing knowledge. Better to be uncertain about things, and about the future, since uncertainty multiplies the possibilities, and it’s the possibilities that enthrall.

Creativity is the indeterminate and stimulating aspect of problem solving. Creativity is indeterminate because we can’t distill it to a distinct set of rules, but must shift between various cognitive strategies for success. Creativity is also stimulating when that shifting between cognitive perspectives is demanded. Thus we can value and long for the demanding attention from our peers, and have nostalgia for the character of long dead civilizations, even if their cultural product has not lasted the test of time. Creativity is not a noun, but an adverb, not a thing, but a shading of a thing. It does not exist as a faculty of mind, but is rather an aspect of our motivation to think and behave.

We focus on creativity, but creativity is an illusion. Our real attention must be on motivation. Creative figures from Isaac Newton to Stephen King attributed their accomplishment not to rules, but to obsession. To incessantly think about physics, music, or writing requires no inner muse or child, no humanistic platitudes, no abstract economics, no lure of posterity. There’s no obscure anthropological, sociological, or psychological force, no divine spark, and no mystery. Creativity is just the product of a culture’s celebration of creation in all its forms, from knitting a quilt to composing a symphony. It is why Shakespeare wrote, and Mozart composed, and Galileo looked to the skies. When everyone wants something from you, from a short story to a home run, you’ve just got problems, and problems are the real meaning of life.

Oh yes, and the cosmos? Consider it God’s gift, instructions not included, and much assembly required.

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