Creative geniuses cause both inspiration and despondence. They start by making you fall in love with them, then you want to do everything you can to be just as deserving of that love, but their magnificence so overwhelms you that you know you can never be as brilliant, as monumental, or loveable. Even geniuses are discouraged by geniuses – when the composer Mily Balakirev sent a letter to Tchaikovsky suggesting that he write a symphony based on Lord Byron’s Manfred, all Tchaikovsky could think about was Robert Schumann having already written music for the same poem:

It is quite possible that the abject coolness with which I view your programme is the fault of Schumann. I love his ‘Manfred’ extremely and am so used to merging in a single indivisible notion Byron’s ‘Manfred’ with Schumann’s ‘Manfred’, that I cannot conceive how I might approach this subject in such a way as to elicit from it any music other than that which Schumann furnished it with.1

Tchaikovsky did go on to write his Manfred Symphony – in my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written – and his triumph over doubt holds a lesson for us all: except for truly prolific virtuosos – rare even for geniuses – the radiance of a masterpiece most often obscures a difficult and chaotic history.

In an event marking the opening of an exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider at London’s Science Museum, the writer Ian McEwan and theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed held a public conversation that touched upon this aspect of the creative process, as well as other connections and disconnections between art and science.

When talking about their approaches to writing or scientific problems, they shared in many artists’ feelings that it’s easier to know what’s wrong with something than it is to know what would be right. Creative success doesn’t arrive as the proverbial flash of revelation, it uncovers itself gradually in the editing process – you start by constructing a deformed version of your ideal, then identify what’s wrong with it and try out as many alternatives as necessary until, almost by a process of elimination, the most elegant form presents itself. Importantly, this is true of modes of thinking in general, not just of the arts, as Arkani-Hamed describes:

I’ve always thought that composers and novelists are probably very, very close to mathematicians and theoretical physicists psychologically and in how they go about things. Perhaps contrary to a certain sort of mythology, people don’t go to their offices and just churn through equations one after the other in some systematic way to get from A and then end up at B and say, “Aha! Now I have succeeded! Page 2.” … The process is a little bit more something like this: you have a certain set of questions you’re trying to solve and you have to imagine what the story could possibly be for what the solution is … You try on stories – could it work like that? could it work like that? – and of course, often, because of the underlying rigidity [of the beauty of natural laws], if the story is a great story it has a better chance of being right … And so most of the time what we do is try out what could possibly be solutions to the problems and then we have to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as we possibly can, and that’s what 99% of our life is about.

This is the part of creativity we forget in our reverence, but it is its most significant component. As Arkani-Hamed pointed out, if you listen to a masterpiece like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, you will recognise and appreciate its structural perfection,2 but hidden behind the score are reams of discarded material that we never see – stories that Beethoven tried out that didn’t quite work, leaving behind what we now know as the 5th. This sentiment is shared by many other artists and scientists interested in the commonalities between the ‘two cultures’, such as Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in a different talk:

Most of the time when you’re working, you’re not getting anywhere – it’s a very frustrating business. I imagine being a poet is like that; most of the time nothing really comes out and every once in a while it does and that makes it all worth while.

It can also be traced further back in intellectual history across other fields of knowledge, with Friedrich Nietzsche putting it succinctly in Human, All Too Human:

In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgement, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects … All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.

Creativity doesn’t require a virtuosity capable of instantaneous perfection, it needs a honed sensibility of imperfection so that you can work persistently at alternatives until that sense evaporates and what remains is worth an audience. Perhaps this inversion – the idea of creating beauty replaced with the destruction of ugliness – is why so many admirable people have been self-effacing. They are not all humble about their abilities, or at least their modesty is counterbalanced by a paradoxical arrogance that is necessary to have the determination to carry on, but whereas we adoringly crave all attention to be focused upon them, they strive to be at the periphery so they can devote themselves to their craft. One poignant example is the author Doris Lessing, another Nobel winner, who died just a few days ago. The video below shows her reaction when a reporter informed her that she had won the prize, and most people would find her stoicism enviable even though we might all secretly want a Nobel for ourselves. She would later say that winning was a “bloody disaster” because all the attention meant she was distracted from her work (to complete the art-science pairing, the physicist Richard Feynman felt much the same).

Footnotes


1. Quotation from a letter translated by the Tchaikovsky Research Project.
2. Arkani-Hamed also referenced the wonderful Leonard Bernstein lectures available on YouTube, in which he talks of Beethoven with a similar vocabulary to the language physicists use to describe mathematical elegance.

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