This essay is basically about the confrontation of opposites -- analysis vs. intuition, the ego vs. the unconscious, discipline vs. passion, caution \vs. courage, rational action vs. obsessive urge, romantic vs. existential -- and how they get twisted together to produce offspring that often bear little resemblance to their parents. The creative act can be both an embrace and a life-or-death struggle.

Over the last 40 years it has become clear that the universe is made up mostly of two opposing forces, neither of which could exist without the other. Dark matter pulls things together and dark energy drives them apart. The galaxies are held together internally by dark matter and are driven away from each other by dark energy. Our paltry 5% of light and matter exists at the interface of these opposing forces. In this sense art is a reflection of the universe. Creativity happens at the delicate point of balance between the conscious and the unconscious mind. It walks a wire between those two towers. A fearful symmetry.



 I. At the Crossroads

"In any creative activity, art is madness, craft is sanity.
The balance between them makes the work."
..............................................................................................................Simon Callow

 Luc Tuymans said that in his initial hours of work on a painting "it's horrific. It's like I don't know what I'm doing but I know how to do it, and it's very strange."



Gerhard Richter says that for him painting is "an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surroundings."


Mathematics can also be a creative activity. Here's Andrew Wiles talking about proving Fermat's last theorem, a 300-year-old puzzle:

Luc Tuymans, Within, 2001, oil on canvas,
88 x 96 inches 

Gerhard Richter, Cage 2, oil on canvas,
120 x 120 inches 

Even mathematicians get emotional. Who knew? So much for Descartes' declaration that rational thought must be dispassionate.

Robert Boury, from 12 Moth Toccatas

Bob Boury said, "When I try to look inward while composing, I'm not seeing anything at all. There's a stillness inside. Charles Ives said, 'What then does music have to do with sound?' Music seems to be a biproduct of another process. But what? Or who cares? The bear just wants the honey."

We'll encounter that bear again in a few minutes. Every artist knows that kind of feeling, and we probably should just leave it alone as Bob says, but some of us can't resist stepping into the labyrinth, difficult though it may be to find our way out.

The Gulf

People have been trying to explain it at least since the time of Plato. It's an on-going project of philosophers, psychologists, theorists and cognitive scientists. "Between the initial idea and the finished piece lies a gulf we can see across, but never fully chart," write David Bayles and Ted Orland in their book Art & Fear (1993). "Precise descriptions fail, but it connects to that wonderful condition in which the work seems to make itself, and the artist serves only as guide or mediator allowing all things to be possible."

(Art & Fear is a good title. We are are either afraid we can't do it or afraid we can't stop doing it. Fred Child ask Phillip Glass in an interview on Performance Today, "What is the business of composing about?" Glass said, "Fear." He said it was very scary at first because so much great music had been composed before him, but he said, "Once you start you can't stop.")

But what is that "gulf" separating us from that "wonderful condition"? Several unrelated books I read gave me the idea that a membrane might be a good metaphor for that which divides these two states. The physical definition is "a thin sheet of natural or synthetic material that is permeable to substances in solution." It's permeable to some substances but not to others. It's a barrier that can also be a gateway.

 In The Mind in the Cave David David Lewis-Williams suggests that "Upper Paleolithic art was implicated in various shamanistic rituals that took people into the subterranean spirit realm and through the 'membrane'." He was thinking of the cave wall as a membrane. It seemed to me that the membrane which shamans penetrate could be thought of as the corpus callosum, the structure that divides the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Or you could think of the membrane as the wall between the conscious and unconscious minds.
Entrance to Chauvet cave

 There are many conflicting theories about the art of this period. Some, like R.Dale Guthrie (The Nature of Paleolithic Art, 2005), want to do away with all the rituals and life-quest nonsense. He'd rather see them as Alaskan big game hunters and naturalists like himself than as Bushmen in Africa.

He makes a valid point that eyeball realism like this, obviously the result of intense observation in the field, has rarely been used as mythographs. Religious art is usually stylized or abstract, as in the Middle Ages, for instance. Renaissance art is a return to the more secular interests of the Greeks, and 20th Century abstraction was a turning away from the reality of war to a more spiritual realm.

But personally, I suspect that both theories are correct, and that at the time of this Big Bang of great art 30,000 years ago specialization between the spiritual and natural had not yet taken place. And even if that's not the case, I still think Lewis-William's metaphor of the cave wall as a membrane makes sense, if only poetic sense.

Lions, bison and rhinos at Chauvet cave in France, 30,000 years ago. Clearly, animation--the depiction of movement in time and space--was born in Paleolithic Europe. It also died there and would not reappear in art until the 20th Century.

In many mythologies stone is often a symbolic conduit or mediator between this world and the spirit world. Jung sites Jacob's stone pillow as the membrane though which God spoke to him in the famous dream. When Jacob awoke he was terrified and said, "How dreadful is this place!" (Aniela Jaffe, Man & His Symbols, p. 233) The cave painters may have had that very same feeling of awe and fear. Artists today talk about "letting the stone speak for itself." Maybe the tradition of stone monuments grew out of the reverence of those early artists and shamans for the stone walls of their underworld sanctuaries.

I encountered the membrane again in a book by Sally Vickers called Where Three Roads Meet, which is a great little novel, a retelling of the Oedipus myth through a meeting between Freud on his death bed and Tiresias, the blind priest who told Oedipus the truth about himself.

The first recording of Oedipus -- and a great one! It's worth about $200 now, but I ain't selling.
 I want to play a little of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, a collaboration with the poet Jean Cocteau, which they called an opera-oratorio. In an oratorio the singers stand up and sing straight to the audience, while the singers in an opera for the most part pretend the audience is not there. So there's an element of voyeurism in opera -- you're learning things that maybe you shouldn't know -- while in the oratorio you're being confronted directly, nowhere to hide. There's a little of both in Oedipus.

This is from Stravinsky's neoclassical period -- a combination of Greek tragedy, the oratorios of Handel, the passions of Bach, the Roman Catholic mass and Medieval morality plays. Jean Cocteau wrote the adaptation from Sophocles and then they had the French text translated into church Latin, and again we encounter stone as a membrane. Stravinsky said he wanted Latin because it was "A medium not dead, but turned to stone …"

Some people say, Why didn't he use Greek? But Greek hasn't turned to stone -- modern Greek is not that different from ancient Greek. Stravinsky wanted the monumental, tombstone quality of Latin. Each section starts with a narrator describing what we're about to see, and the instructions in the score call for the narration to be in the language of the audience, but the record I first heard this on, about 45 years ago, is the 1952 LP with Jean Cocteau himself doing the narration as he did in the first performance in 1927, and that's the only one that has ever sounded "right" to me -- until I heard the Japanese narrator in this one!

I found this clip on YouTube when I was looking for something to illustrate this part of my lecture, but it turned out to be a wonderful discovery. If Greek to French to Latin is not enough mixing of cultures, this is a Japanese production with a Japanese chorus, Seiji Ozawa conducting.

Julie Taymor directed it, and she used stone masks with fixed expressions, and the singers had stone hands in fixed positions. But the masks were above their heads, leaving them free to sing without the restrictions of a mask. And they used puppet-like actors upstage to dramatize in flashbacks what happened all those years ago at the crossroads. (And believe me, it's all I can do to stop myself from playing Robert Johnson right now! Greek tragedy meets the blues! I'll play some later if there's time.) It's as if the protagonists are puppets being manipulated by the gods for their own twisted entertainment.

"Trivium" is the Latin for Where Three Roads Meet. The three red ribbons -- red for blood -- in this production symbolize that intersection, where Oedipus, in a moment of road rage, killed a man who, he is now finding out, was his father. This is the moment that Aristotle called Anagnorisis, or Discovery, the moment in a tragedy when some terrible truth is revealed.


Stravinsky, Oedipus Rex

Introduction to Act 1, narration in Japanese, followed by Act 2 -- "Trivium, Trivium" - Jessye Norman (Jocasta) - Philip Langridge (Oedipus) - Opera Oratorio in two acts - Poem after Sophocles by Jean Cocteau - Tokyo Opera Singers - Seiji Ozawa conducting, directed by Julie Taymor- Sung in Latin


What Jocasta is saying there at end is, "Domum kito redeamus!"-- "let's go home quickly!" and Oedipus says "Jocasta, voloc onsulere! Skiam!"--Jocasta, I must find the truth!" And this is also the case with art-making. No matter how dangerous, no matter how self-incriminating, you have to find the truth. Otherwise you're just going through the motions. --Not that there's anything wrong with that! A lot of people are making a good living going through the motions.

Tiresias, who delivered the oracle to King Laius, that his son would murder him and marry his wife, was a priest in the Temple at Delphi. This was a holy place of Gaia, the earth mother, long before the Greeks got there. It was the Omphalus, the navel of the world, where Apollo slew the Python. In Sally Vickers' book Tiresias says that it's one of those "thin places, where the membrane of the earth is stretched and immortal forces may more strongly be felt."

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi 

This is also the state of the artist at work. In this "trance" there's a minimum of linear thinking. Time slips away. The brush seems to move on its own. We think in sounds and pictures, not in words. It's a kind of euphoria that can be tapped into by artists, shamans, and stroke victims who have lost their left brain, like Jill Bolte Taylor (My Stroke of Insight, 2008). The ego is left behind. The ego is a creature of the left hemisphere, the language centers. In the nonlinear realm of the right brain religious people feel they are connecting to God, scientists to the universe, artists to the image.

Robert Schumann was extremely erudite and analytical, probably the best writer among the composers. And yet when he composed music, according to Heinz Holliger, "he wrote almost everything in a trance, at unbelievable speed." When he was asked about Schumann's mental illness, Holliger said, "People who are considered mad have not been taught by life to wall up their openness and they have more direct contact to their unconscious."

So it seemed to me that the membrane which shamans and artists penetrate could be thought of as the corpus callosum, the structure that divides the left and right hemispheres of the brain, though that’s probably an oversimplification. I recently read an article on the Science Daily website called “Suppressing Brain’s ‘Filter’ Can Improve Performance in Creative Tasks.” Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania “designed an experiment that involved inhibiting the activity of the left prefrontal cortex in adults while they completed a creative task.” The left prefrontal cortex is what filters out irrelevant stuff, edits out everything but what we need to know to get wherever we’re going and do whatever we’re doing. But the muse is hiding in the irrelevant stuff. The subjects who had their “filters” suppressed scored much higher on uncommon tasks—problems they had never been confronted with before—than those with no suppression or those who had their right prefrontal cortex suppressed. This filter is what I’m calling the Membrane.

Topologists shorten "membrane" it to "brane," so you could think of the corpus calosum, or filter, as the brane in the brain.

Jill Taylor is a neuroanatomist and was able to observe her own damaged brain objectively when her left brain was partially functioning and then to remember the experience later when she had recovered. She says, "My right mind is open to new possibilities and thinks out of the box. It is not limited by the rules and regulations established by my left mind that created that box. Consequently, my right mind is highly creative in willingness to try something new. It appreciates that chaos is the first step in the creative process."

Heinrich von Kleist, a contemporary of Beethoven and a precursor of Kafka, wrote a strange and beautiful little parable equating self-consciousness with the expulsion from Eden. But it can also be applied to the artist's dilemma. It's called "On the Theater of Marionettes," and is a dialogue between Kleist and a professional dancer. The dancer claims that human dancers, limited as they are by gravity, ego and anatomy, can never achieve the natural grace of the marionette, an inanimate object which is unencumbered by these things.

[As a footnote, I could mention here that Stravinsky was not opposed to the use of puppets in Oedipus rex, and for the same reason given by Von Kleist's dancer -- to eliminate the ego.]
He cites another example which brings us back to Bob's bear. The dancer was a skilled fencer, nobody could touch him, but the bear, who knew nothing of fencing, had no trouble blocking his every thrust."Not only did the bear, like the foremost fencer in the world, parry all my thrusts; but unlike any human counterpart would have done, not a single time did he go for my feints: Looking me eye to eye, as if he could read my soul, he stood stock still, paw raised and ready, and if my thrusts were ruses, he did not even budge."
He says that "in the organic world, to the same degree that reflection gets darker and weaker, grace grows ever more radiant and dominant." So there is a conflict between consciousness and grace, between idea and image, between objective analysis and subjective action. But both these extremes -- the architecture of human intelligence and the grace of a tree blowing in the wind -- are necessary for the making of a work of art. And between the two is the membrane, a barrier that is also a gateway, guarded by an angel. Kleist's story ends like this:

"'In which case,' I observed, a bit befuddled, 'would we then have to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge again to fall back into the state of innocence?'

'Undoubtedly,' he replied; 'which will be the last chapter of the history of the world.'"

Yes, because no history gets made in Paradise. As graceful as the puppet may be, it's nothing without the puppeteer who animates it.

So this is where the muse comes in. Something has to break through the wall to give us the grace of the bear, who just wants the honey.


Robert Johnson, "Crossroads Blues," recorded in 1936, the year I was born.

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