COMPARE & CONTRAST Bob Dylan and the scientist

In How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer strives to articulate how creative decisions are taken: how does a scientist alight upon an innovative solution, and how does Bob Dylan conceive, gestate, and birth a song? Lehrer says:

“This is the clichéd moment of insight that people know so well from stories of Archimedes in the bathtub and Isaac Newton under the apple tree. The moment of insight can seem like an impenetrable enigma. The question, of course, is how these insights happen.”

This question of creation badgers artists in the same way that a baby does its parent. “How did you get here?” is a question leading inside the artist (back to before they consciously conceived a project) as well as outside (to the stimuli which triggered the cognitions leading to the novel, painting or poem produced.)

Martin Amis is eloquent about it, in an interview with The Spectator:

“At which point do you realise that you have a novel springing to life? It’s a fascinating question. It’s all decided in a moment, I think. You get a funny feeling, you see something or read something and almost at once you get a kind of throb, which goes through you — a shiver. And you think: this is a novel I can write. You don’t know much about it, but you know how you’re going to begin, perhaps. It’s a situation, it’s a setting, but it’s deeply mysterious. The whole process is deeply mysterious.”

Amis’ description of the moment of creation captures neatly its physiological (“throb”, “shiver”), triggered (“see or read something”), and enigmatic (“perhaps”, “mysterious”) conditions.

It brings me back to the first comparison: between Bob Dylan and the scientist. There is a problem here, and it lies in the differences between a creative solution to a problem, and creativity.

Whereas Lehrer rightly uses the scientist to show how creative innovation can solve a problem beyond the scope of logic and algorithms, I don’t think the same can be said for Bob Dylan. The key difference is that the scientist works towards an end (answering part of an unfinished theory, finding the right chemical formula to perform a task), whereas the artist does not.

Take Lehrer’s example of Archimedes who leapt out of the bathtub when he had discovered the displacement of water. That Lehrer recounts this clichéd tale in a clichéd fashion suggests he has thought little about the real connection between this moment of inspiration and one that a musician like Dylan would have. He says:

“Hopelessness eventually gives way to a revelation. This is another essential feature of moments of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the new idea.”

This is true for a scientist, who can ratify his hypothesis through testing and the testimony of his peers. But it would be inadvisable for Bob Dylan to claim that his latest song is “right”.

Why? Because art strives towards subjective perception; science, objective measurement. Hence my issue of definitions earlier: art has creativity as an end in itself, and science has creative solutions to extant problems.

This is the fundamental difference between two universal fields of human activity, but Lehrer has failed to understand it. It is only through Practical Criticism (which encourages us to interrogate the premise of everything we are told) that this shortcoming can be revealed.

Indeed, in performing this analysis we have created shortcomings of our own — words like “art” and “science” can’t be flung upon us so flippantly — but this is only a blog, after all.

COMPARE & CONTRAST: Two academic citations of science fiction


– Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, a passage printed in The Guardian Review, 30 March 2012

– Tom Margold’s BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Inside the Bermuda Triangle: The Mysteries Solved.’

Practical Criticism #4: Well-employed sources make a text. They are working bibliography which shows not only that the writer has read widely about a subject, but also thought beyond it. Conflating here; diluting there.

In this sense, citations should also come with a health warning: CAN UNRAVEL ARGUMENTS. For example, quote Robert Conquest on 20th-Century Russia or Germany at your peril. Cite Dryden on Shakespeare with many caveats.

Similarly too, the advice for academics: reference pop culture—like the science fiction novels of the 1950s—rarely.

Tom Margold’s dryly cynical documentary into the origins of the Bermuda Triangle myths and mysteries is an exception to this advice. His show is an excursion into the formulation of frustrating pop-culture superstitions themselves; about how tales of the city of Atlantis, of UFOs, and government conspiracy theories, are propped against each other to create universally known—and believed?—tales such as the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness monster, David Hasslehoff, etc.

Margold takes a good ten minutes to interview the writer of the 1974 text The Devils Triangle. It’s a tug-and-pull moment of broadcasting where the sceptic meets the writer who says straight-faced: “It is an astonishing, baffling, fully documented true life mystery of the hundreds of helpless victims, sucked up by giant water spouts, sea monsters and flying saucers.” It is a dramatisation of what really happened, the writer tells us.

Fine. Margold proves his point. And he is a good model against which to pick at Tom Holland. The issue that is taken with citing science fiction—or ci-sci-fi as we could call it—is when it is used in academic discourse to demonstrate the permeation of a niche idea or text into pop culture. This is rarely convincing.

And here are the problems.

Holland’s chosen topic is already broad enough in scope. He is trying to show not only that the rise of Islam in the West in 800AD is causally related to the fall of the Roman Empire since year 0, but that Rome’s trajectory is the archetype of all ‘fall’ narratives since, influencing the Prophet Mohammad, Camelot, and The Gothic.

On top of all this is 20th-Century sci-fi.

And it is on citing Isaac Asimov’s 1951 sci-fi novel Foundations that Holland stumbles. He states:

“There were nearly twenty-five-million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.” So begins Isaac Asimov’s Foundations, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon’s magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall.

None of this should be disputed in itself. It is what Holland evidences it with that is the problem. He ci-sci-fis to prove both the legacy of “gripping narratives” from Rome’s fall, and the “curious” happening that 1950s novelists had beaten historians to the realisations that Muhammad is key to Rome’s demise by some 20 years.

The predicament Holland is in is that sci-fi is probably the least impressive source of modern literature’s indebtedness to antiquity (think of Joyce’s Ulysses on dead epic, of McCarthey’s The Road on dead civilisation) but is required in his study to bolster the point that the Muhammad legend arose from Rome’s decline.

Holland is reduced to second-rate sources, and it shows. At times he is shifty-eyed and evasive. He admits that

unlike Star Wars and Battlestar Gallactica, Asimov drew direct sustenamce from his historical model

which translates as

most sci-fi hasn’t got anything to do with the fall of Rome.

He says too on this ‘power narrative’ legacy in general: “It can take an effort, though, to recognise this.” This means, ‘My links are tenuous’.

This slight self-doubt from Holland creeps throughout his article. I think he is aware that he is using the rise and fall of the Roman Empire as an analogy for all ‘rise and fall of power’ narratives. Other than Asimov’s Foundations being allied with Gibbon’s text, Holland’s use of sci-fi proves little more than the fact that readers love a good story, and that a good story needs power and antagonism.

COMPARE & CONTRAST Two anti-establishment polemicists

Practical Criticism #1: Is it just me or are the calls for reform of FIFA oddly reminiscent of Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates?

You know the one: King Charles is a tyrant who’s forgotten the key to a healthy body-politic is that the brain represents his limbs and organs. Just the same, FIFA, the governing-body-politic, should have the best interests of the greatest race of all – football supporters – at heart.

Or so is the argument of Damian Collins MP who is campaigning for reform of FIFA in the light of corruption allegations. This the plea from his website

“Football is the world’s game, and FIFA its governing body. Football doesn’t belong to FIFA, it belongs to everyone who loves the game. So when such a global institution of great importance loses its way, it is the duty of those entrusted with its care to chart a course of correction.  When the leaders of such an organisation lack the credibility that is required to do so, a valuable function of parliaments and governments is to offer sound and independent intervention and support.

“We call parliamentarians and elected representatives from all the nations of the world to register their support for our International Partnership for FIFA Reform, on this website based on the principles set out below.”

This all sounds very grand. Ah yes, football is the world‘s game. Not even just for humans anymore, football is truly the game of the animal and plant kingdom too: horses and cows would play it all day long if it weren’t for their damn clumsy hooves. Have you not seen blades of grass bend and rise as a football rolls by? That’s a mexican wave from the realm of Flora!

But I jest. Mr Collins’ pledge is all talk and no walk. And only Milton can prove for me that the FIFA campaigner doesn’t have the balls to behead Sepp Blatter at the gates of the Emirates. Only a true 17th-century nutter can justify regicide in such cools terms as this:

“The power of Kings and Magistrates […] is originally the peoples, and by them conferr’d in trust onely to bee imployd to the common peace and benefit; with liberty therfore and right remaining in them to reassume it to themselves, if by Kings or Magistrates it be abus’d; or to dispose of it by any alteration, as they shall judge most conducing to the public good.

“It being thus manifest that the power of Kings and Magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferr’d and committed to them in trust from the People, to the Common good of them all, in whom the power yet remaines fundamentally, and cannot be tak’n from them, without a violation of thir natural birthright, and seeing that from hence Aristotle and the best of Political writers have defin’d a King, him who governs to the good and profit of his People, and not for his own ends, it follows from necessary causes, that the Titles of Sov’ran Lord, natural Lord, and the like, are either arrogancies, or flatteries, not admitted by Emperours and Kings of best note.”

Oh my, what sensible autonomous citizens we all were, delegating our power and liberty to one single person to look after. And how naïve of us to think that it is the elite 1% with 99% of resources at hand who’ve actually been delegating to us! I’m not saying that we’ve ever lived in a truly top down social hierarchy, but Milton’s logic is so bottom-up that it’s bent double with it’s head in the sand.

Which brings me to my actual point.

Both of these works are clearly a big joke. The notion that every person “originally” had their own say and simply deferred it to a benevolent leader to look after is just too reassuring to be true. “Originally,” yes, as in: “Originally, in the Garden of Eden (which has taken a bit of a hit in the past 350 years . . .)”

These writers are clever enough to know that if we dethroned every tyrant, dickhead, and micro-manager from the pedastals they’ve made out of their own bullshit and propelled themselves on top of with guffs of hot air, then we’d live in a global communist state. And where would that leave us but trying to dethrone our totalitarian overlords.

Collins and Milton’s intention isn’t revolution. (Together they sound more like a solicitor’s office.) No, they aren’t for revolution against tyrants at all, they are for appeasing the confused and dominated masses. Look at the evangelically optimistic lexicon they dastardly employ: there is football for everyone who “loves” the game, there is “great importance”, there is “duty”, power “entrusted”, “care”, correction”, credibility”, “support”.

Milton is worse: there is “trust”, “peace”, “benefit”, “liberty”, “good”, “committed”.

It is gut-wrenchingly euphemistic. And what is this impossibly vague and optimistic lexicon for? Well, for Collins it is intended to hide the fact that a governing body must be separate from its worldwide representees or otherwise there’d be a global referendum any time Fowler got a yellow card in the second minute or Mario Balotelli accidentally crashed his Mazarati into his private jet.

But Collins can flog the FIFA scapegoat all he likes. It is Milton’s darker intention that worries me. This is a man justifying the replacement of his king by his king’s murderer.

Let Gary Linekar execute Sepp Blatter during half time and see if Collins rallies the world of football with his rhetoric then.