TITLE: OOPSLA Day 3: Robert Hass on Creativity AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 18, 2005 4:04 PM DESC: A poet-scholar teaches us about creativity. Much of what he says is similar to things we've heard, but some is not, and in any case a poet can tell a good story in his own way. ----- BODY: With Dick Gabriel and Ralph Johnson leading OOPSLA this year, none of us were that the themes of the conference were creativity and discovery. This theme presented itself immediately in the conference's opening keynote speaker, former poet laureate Robert Hass. He gave a marvelous talk on creativity. Hass began his presentation by reading a poem (whose name I missed) from Dick's new chapbook, Drive On. Bob was one of Dick's early teachers, and he clearly reveled in the lyricism, the rhythm of the poem. Teachers often form close bonds with their students, however long or short the teaching relationship. I know the feeling from both sides of the phenomenon. He then described his initial panic at thought of introducing the topic of creativity to a thousand people who develop software -- who create, but in a domain so far from his expertise. But a scholar can find ways to understand and transmit ideas of value wherever they live, and Hass is not only a poet but a first-rate scholar. Charles Dickens burst on scene with publication of The Pickwick Papers. With this novel, Dickens essentially invented the genre of the magazine-serialized novel. When asked how he created a new genre of literature, he said simply, "I thought of Pickwick." I was immediately reminded of something John Gribble said in his talk at Extravagaria on Sunday: Inspiration comes to those already involved in the work. Creativity seems to happen almost with cause. Hass consulted with friends who have created interesting results. One solved a math problem thought unsolvable by reading the literature and "seeing" the answer. Another claimed to have resolved the two toughest puzzles in his professional career by going to sleep and waking up with the answer. So Hass offered his first suggestion for how to be creative: Go to sleep. Human beings were the first animals to trade instinct for learning. The first major product of our learning was our tools. We made tools that reflected what we learned about solving immediate problems we faced in life. These tools embodied the patterns we observed in our universe. We then moved on to broader forms of patterns: story, song, and dance. These were,according to Hass, the original forms of information storage and retrieval, the first memory technologies. Eventually, though, we created a new tool, the printing press, that made these fundamentally less essential -- less important!? And now the folks in this room contribute to the ultimate tool, the computer, that in many ways obsoletes human memory technology. As a result, advances in human memory tech have slowed, nearly ceased. The bulk of Hass's presentation explored the interplay between the conservative in us (to desire to preserve in memory) and the creative in us (the desire to create anew). This juxtaposition of 'conservative' and 'creative' begets a temptation for cheap political shots, to which even Hass himself surrendered at least twice. But the juxtaposition is essential, and Hass's presentation repeatedly showed the value and human imperative for both. Evolutionary creativity depends on the presence having a constant part and a variable part, for example, the mix of same and different in an animal's body, in the environment. The simultaneous presence of constant and variable is the basis of man's physical life. It is also the basis of our psychic life. We all want security and freedom, in an unending cycle Indeed, I believe that most of us want both all the time, at the same time. Conservative and creative, constant and variable -- we want and need both. Humans have a fundamental desire for individuation, even while still feeling a oneness with our mothers, our mentors, the sources of our lives. Inspiration, in a way, is how a person comes to be herself -- is in part a process of separation. "Once upon a time" is linguistic symbol, the first step of the our separation from the immediate action of reading into a created world. At the same time, we want to be safe and close to, free and faraway. Union and individuation. Remembering and changing. Most of us think that most everyone else is more creative than we are. This is a form of the fear John Gribble spoke about on Sunday, one of the blocks we must learn to eliminate from our minds -- or at least fool ourselves into ignoring. (I am reminded of John Nash choosing to ignore the people his mind fabricates around him in A Beautiful Mind.) Hass then told a story about the siren song from The Odyssey. It turns out that most of the stories in Homer's epics are based in "bear stories" much older than Homer. Anyway, Odysseus's encounter with the sirens is part of a story of innovation and return, freedom on the journey followed by a return to restore safety at home. Odysseus exhibits the creativity of an epic hero: he ties himself to the mast so that he can hear the sirens' song without having to take ship so close to the rocks. According to Hass, in some versions of the siren story, the sirens couldn't sing -- the song was only a sailors' legend. But they desire to hear the beautiful song, if it exists. Odysseus took a path that allowed him both safety and freedom, without giving up his desire. In preparing for this talk,hass asked himself, "Why should I talk to you about creativity? Why think about it all?" He identified at least four very good reasons, the desire to answer these questions:
A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a great truth.Hass reminds us that there is agony in creativity -- a pain at stuckness, found in engagement with the world. Pain is unlike pleasure, which is homeostatic ("a beer and ballgame"). Agony is dynamic, ceasing to cling to safe position. There is always an element of anxiety, consciousness heightened at the moment of insight, gestalt in face of incomplete pattern. The audience asked a couple of questions:
The pain is unbearable, paint dripping in my face, I climb down to look at it, and it's horrible, I hate it, I am no painter...It was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. ~~~~~ UPDATE (10/20/05): Thanks again to Google, I have tracked down the sonnet that Hass wanted to read. I especially love the ending:
Defend my labor's cause,I have felt this way about a program before. Many times. -----
good Giovanni, from all strictures:
I live in hell and paint its pictures.
-- Michelangelo Buonarroti