Creativity & The Unconscious In The Time Of COVID-19
The following blog post is a conversation between myself and my partner, Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.
On this fifteenth day of March, 2020 we observe the Ides of March. In 44 B.C. the assassination of Julius Caesar precipitated a turning point in Roman history. Two thousand years later, we may be at another turning point in history.
The world is now well-acquainted with the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus. It reared its ugly spiked-protein head surreptitiously, shapeshifting from animal to human form, like something out of Greek mythology.
At first wreaking havoc as it flew with its leathery, rustling wings into Wuhan. like a marauding bat- dragon laying low anyone in its path with its poisonous breath.
Later, it would shape shift again, this time exploding with blistering speed onto the world stage like a war horse in a dead run.
We’re seeing exponential growth of coronavirus cases.
Unless extraordinary measures are taken to stop it, this virus will end up infecting most of the population of the Earth at some point.
This COVID-19 pandemic could end up being as widespread as previous ones such as the Spanish Flu (1918-1920), the Black Death (1331–1353) and the Plague of Justinian (541-542).
Those earlier afflictions infected vast numbers of people, even in civilizations without planes, trains and automobiles to connect people across vast distances.
Life finds a way
Jeff Goldblum ruefully opined in Jurassic Park
Fortunately, COVID-19 so far may not be as pervasively deadly as some of the previous pandemics, but that is no reason to be complacent. Things can change.
The coronavirus points out the dark side of creativity and the implacableness of Nature.
For new things to arise, old things must decline.
Creativity in Nature is not all platypuses and rainbows, it is also plague and ruin and unstoppable change, extinctions and revolutions.
Life is both beautiful and terrifying, and made all the more so by its finite duration.
And evolution never stops. There is no permanent winner.
It’s like the game of rock-paper-scissors (rochambeau), in which no single action can prevail for long. It just keeps churning.
Creativity implies impermanence, and one must come to terms with this, in one’s own life and in the world at large.
If it were permanent and unchanging, it would not be Life.
This “churn” is further illustrated by a concept from the branch of mathematics of game theory called The El Farol Problem or more commonly and dryly, The Minority Game.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, there is a centuries-old Spanish stables that was converted to a restaurant and bar, now very popular, especially among scientists from the Santa Fe Institute and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Under the low arched doorways and sagging ceilings held up by bowed pine trunks that were harvested before the French Revolution, the celebrations, intrigues and affairs of a small town take place at candlelit tables.
El Farol is a very small venue. People like to go there, but the crowds can be overwhelming, margarita swigging hordes six deep at the bar, leather lunged bellowers creating a deafening cacophony and escalating contest of conversation that nobody can win.
But some nights are quiet.
If you chance on one of those nights when you’re looking for a peaceful solo meal with a classical guitarist playing softly and the snow sifting down gently outside, there is no more charming place in town to be.
But what happens then?
You tell your friends.
Being good friends, they listen to you. They join you. Soon, their friends do also.
It’s like a viral epidemic of conviviality.
And guess what? El Farol is crowded again.
Perhaps some other night? And the churn goes on.
The Virality Of Ideas
But viruses and popular restaurants are not the only viral things out there.
Ideas can have virality as well.
People talk of a social media meme, event or personality “going viral.”
It has become a familiar concept in the Internet age, so when a particular social phenomenon shows up everywhere simultaneously, we are not at all surprised.
“It’s the Internet, dummy” is considered a sufficient explanation to fob off on anyone who has the temerity to dig deeper.
This was not always so.
Harkening back to the dim ages before the Internet, there have been cases of serendipitous simultaneity across many fields of human endeavor that cannot be explained by a simple causal mechanism such as telling your friends in person or online.
It is almost as if peoples’ minds tap into some sort of Zeitgeist (literally ‘spirit of the time’) that is non verbal and non-isolatable, a kind of collective unconscious driving the creative evolution of civilization.
Bruce has been thinking about a mysterious concurrence in human artistic history for the last thirty years. Creating this blog post and being in conversation about the intersection of art and science has been an impetus for him to finally set pen to paper and organize his ideas.
Here is Bruce’s observation, a collection of four events that happened across four disparate areas of creative endeavor in a few short years around 1905-1909. I believe it shows that there are powerful non-articulable forces at work in the subconscious that have profound and widespread effects.
Four Events Across Genres Implying Relativity Of Time & Perspective
In painting, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, a painting that did not have a single point of view to create a unified perspective around. Instead, it superimposed multiple points of view and was considered the first Cubist painting.
One could argue that the time dimension has been added to the static practice of painting, and this was effected by the use of multiple points of view. Time is implied because changing points of view implies the painter or the subject moving, which would take time.
Other multi-perspective paintings followed from many painters, culminating in perhaps the most famous, Nude Descending a Staircase (Nu descendant un escalier n° 2) by Marcel Duchamp in 1912.
In music, the first atonal or twelve-tone pieces of music were being composed, arising in the works of Bartòk and Schoenberg in 1908. Although it was not yet called “twelve-tone” music, the fundamental principles of the genre were being explored at this time.
The concept of key or tonal center that had driven music for three centuries was eroded and ultimately discarded for music that had no tonal center.
Everything was relative to what was around it, and there was no preferred tonal center, just as in painting there was no preferred visual perspective.
In literature, Marcel Proust began In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu) in 1909. In over three thousand pages and seven books spanning 13 years until his death in 1922, Proust explores multiple perspectives and the mutability of time and recollection depending on the point of view of the characters. Proust simultaneously addressed the importance and the subjectivity of time.
What shows up again and again across different artistic pursuits is a new relationship with time, either explicitly (music and literature) or implicitly (art).
Time and perspective are inextricably linked and furthermore colored by subjectivity.
In science, something astonishing was bubbling up in the mind of a young man.
In Switzerland in 1905, a 26-year old patent clerk named Albert Einstein quietly publishes a revolutionary paper about a new theory called ‘Special Relativity’.
The theory states that the Universe does not have a preferred point of view (“reference frame”) and timekeeping is distorted by one’s point of view (clocks moving relative to an observer appear to run slower).
Again, time and point of view and subjectivity are inextricably intertwined.
As J.B.S. Haldane, the evolutionary biologist said,
Not only is the world stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
Einstein’s theory was just a portent of strangenesses to come.
How and why did all of these perceptual and philosophical changes occur in such a short time?
It is hard to imagine that Schoenberg, Proust, and Picasso all read Einstein’s paper (and understood it) and made a conscious decision to apply the spirit of special relativity in their studios.
There is definitely correlation, but is there causality?
It is as if something bubbled up from the collective subconscious when the world was ready for it.
Studies of plagues have shown that often the virus or bacterium or organism was present all along, but for whatever reason it was unable to gain a foothold.
But sometimes, the collective circumstances of a civilization could change, generating a sudden transition, a phase transition, to a starkly different reality.
A phase transition is when something goes from one state to a completely different state seemingly all at once. For example, when you have a pot of water on a stove and as you heat it up, you get a bubble here and there and suddenly bubbles are everywhere as it boils. Where this happens is on the steep part of the curve of the graph below.
Issues such as widespread malnutrition, crowding, travel, poor crops and sick animals can change the variables just enough to tip the scales.
This is about the iceberg: how much of life is visible and how much is invisible.
New forms, new experiences arise at the boundary of the known and the unknown.
With gratitude from my studio to yours,
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love my book:
The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity, named one of the Best Creativity Books Of All Time by BookAuthority.