Monday, August 22, 2011

Defining Moments: Creation Myths & Individual Creativity

In the Beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. (Genesis 1: 1-3)

People sometimes say to me how lucky I am to be so creative. Well, yes and no. In the first place, it’s less luck than the hard work of education, discipline and practice; of a certain kind of allowing--the willingness to release control and risk failure; and of picking myself up after failure and trying again. This process involves heat and pressure, deep in the psyche, an annealing, metamorphosing and alchemical transformation best described by the diamond-hard word rigor.

Secondly, I believe that I am not uniquely gifted and that all people possess creative ability. And thirdly, it’s not always evident just how lucky it is to be creatively gifted.

The central importance of the action of creation to the human psyche cannot be overstated. Universally, in all cultures, the world begins by an act of creation. Similarly, in a profound sense, our lives as individuals begin when we are able to break away from all the givens of our enculturation and create something original, something which has never before been and which could not have been created by anyone but oneself. Such an act brings one to self-consciousness and elevates one above the level of the herd, which acts through instinct, habit, cultural expectation and taboo. Anyone who has witnessed the joy and delight of a child in the act of creating an original drawing understands the central importance of the creative act to human development, self-definition and self-understanding.

For three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the words from Genesis, above, evoke a defining moment when from nothing came something, through a pure act of creativity. Think of the fingers of God and Adam touching, on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as a consummate image of this moment when pure energy manifests materiality.

Other cultures and religions, in their own creation myths, possess narratives explicating how the material world first arose. For example, the Greeks did not believe the gods created the universe. It was the other way around: the universe created the gods. The earth was formed before there were gods and the sky, Ouranos, and earth, Gaia, became the first parents. The Titans were their children, and the Olympian gods were their grandchildren.

The ancient Egyptians believed that creation began before the gods, as well. In their Beginning was Atum,  formless, whole, encompassing maleness and femaleness, complete and perfect within itself. To ease its loneliness, Atum begot two children of itself, Shu, the god of air, and Tefnut, the goddess of moisture. These two, in turn, begat two children, the goddess of Heaven, Nut, and the god of Earth, Geb. These two then begat Ra, the Sun, and Thoth, the Moon, both sons. Again, Nut became pregnant and, after a difficult and prolonged pregnancy, gave birth to four children: Osiris, Isis, Nepthys, and Set.

Isis and Osiris were said to have fallen in love inside their mother’s womb. They not only were sister and brother, but wife and husband, queen and king, goddess and god and the founding mother and father of Egyptian civilization. Osiris invented and taught agriculture, writing and the arts. Isis taught spinning, weaving, feminine adornment, dance, ritual and magic. Together, they reigned over a Golden Age that brought order, abundance and beauty to the earth.

Several world cultures picture the world’s beginnings in a primordial egg. In Polynesia, for example, the first god born from the egg was Makemake, who created himself in the primordial form of a man with the head of a bird.  Around 1000 C.E., sculptors on Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, began sculpting huge heads of volcanic tuff, more than a thousand of them weighing sixty tons or more, to anchor and manifest the divine energy, or mana, radiating from the gods and the ancestors, chief among them Makemake On the other side of the world, the Orphic tradition in Greece, dating from between the eighth and sixth century B.C.E., also held that the world was born from a cosmic egg.

From these narratives of creation, only a few among thousands, we see that creativity is fundamental to humankind’s conception of itself. The foundational act, the primal inspiration, the primordial invention, is rooted in creativity. Before the creative act, nothing is. After it, the world is born. Thus, the individual act of creation partakes, in its original essence, of the sacred and the numinous.

The arts are one way that humankind expresses its creativity. Throughout human history, the creativity of the craftsperson and artist has been understood to partake of godlike power. Anyone who has sat before a blank piece of paper, a white canvas, a lump of marble or an empty stage, and imagined and from that imagining, created, knows the wonder and power generated by the creative act. Such a person is witness that from nothing comes something. From nothingness, a poem or novel, a sketch or painting, a three dimensional image or a drama or dance production is born.

Man, as a cultural animal, is born at the moment when he ends his total enslavement to the laws of nature, and this is possible if the will, understood . . . as energy at the disposal of consciousness, is able to go beyond instinctual conditioning and point out new roads to travel (Aldo Carotenuto, The Vertical Labyrinth, 66-67).

What lies behind this marvelous creative ability? How are we humans able to manifest this godlike power? What is the nature of the creative act and of the inspiration that propels it? Are some of us more gifted in this regard than others? What are the attributes of the creative person? How is such a person fostered and encouraged, developmentally? What happens inside the human brain, when something new is being generated? What is the impact on oneself and one’s culture of the creative act?

Defining creativity is not so simple as it might seem. Many books have been written, many studies conducted, in attempts to define this errant and freewheeling phenomenon. It has been viewed from neurological, psychological, experiential, spiritual, mystical, and cultural  standpoints. Like individual facets of a crystal or the anatomy of the elephant explored by blind men, however, each of these explorations is both exhaustive yet incomplete. Creativity, its living wholeness, eludes our quantifying and qualifying efforts. It must be experienced in those white-hot moments when knowledge, skill and inspiration anneal, to be understood.

Why do we study creativity and debate its basic constitution? Because all of human culture rests upon it. All the endless problems of human existence depend for answers upon the ability of the human being to create, to move beyond accepted boundaries and to step boldly into the unknown.

History tells us that this courage to create is not without its penalties. Because it oversteps culturally accepted boundaries and taboos, the act of creation is just as likely to bring censure as praise. Therefore, the creative person must be armored in courage as well as inspiration, in order, as writer James Joyce put it, to create “the uncreated conscience of the race.”

For example, Copernicus conceived the heliocentric theory of the solar system, thereby initiating the Scientific Revolution. For his pains, he was mocked by the scientific community of his day and he therefore kept his communications about his theory as a secret to be shared only with a handful of enlightened correspondents.

All those who have something new to say pay the price of hatred and are subject to the law whereby no one is a prophet in his own country. Thus the fear of being creative has a structural foundation in the fear of envy. It is natural and correct to think of external envy, since envious persons really do exist and the persecution that they are able to inflict on us is real. But we should also realize that what actually paralyzes us is our own fear. Man’s greatness thus passes through a confrontation with whatever opposes our creativity from within. The struggle conducted to assert and express oneself is never primarily external: what is essential instead is the resolution of inner conflicts, which are those that give others the possibility of injuring us, and above all, take away our ability to express our true individuality (Carotenuto, Ibid., 63).

The creative act is ever a bold one, fraught with peril, overseen by criticism, both internal and external; an act that pushes back the boundaries of the known and exposes the new and the untried, in all its vulnerability. It is this vulnerability that limits the fearful in their creative attempts and exalts the courageous.

What is creative courage? Is it the opposite of despair, or a simple kind of stubbornness? Psychologist Rollo May says no:

This courage will not be the opposite of despair. We shall often be faced with despair, as indeed every sensitive person has been. . . . Hence Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Camus and Sartre have proclaimed that courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair (May, The Courage to Create, 3). 

The decision to live a creative life is a courageous one and always marks a defining moment in the psyche. Each of us must ask him- or herself: am I equal to the task? Obviously, not all of us can be a Copernicus or a Michelangelo. When considering one’s own creative abilities, it is important not to compare oneself with others but with one’s former self, and to discover the ways in which, creative act by creative act, one grows and transforms. The fate of our individuality depends upon this – and perhaps even the fate of the world.

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