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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

acts of creation

Well bless me, there is sun out there and blue sky. Kimmie sent me an e-mail, two floors below her (she can do that now), commenting on the beauty of the sunlight touching the orange leaves of the maples on the boulevard. The deluge is over.

Yesterday I had the fun of receiving a book in the mail. If you order enough books online, you don't know what has arrived until you open it, which gives the experience more of a Christmas feeling--it's fun! It was a used book, not a purchase from Amazon. I saw a Chicago postmark, but didn't remember what book I had bought from there--and didn't want to remember. I tore open the envelope, and unwrapped the hardcover book, which someone had carefully shrouded in pages of the Chicago Sun-Times' sports and metro sections. Then it was revealed: a compact, quite pristine 1969 copy of Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation--a book I'd forgotten altogether that I'd bought.

I subjected it to my usual process for receiving a used book: I carefully wiped down its (surprisingly intact) dustjacket with a damp cloth to remove the grubbiness and organic flecks that accrete on book covers. This made the book feel clean and new. Then I inscribed my name and the month and year on the inside.

I forget now exactly what prompted me to buy the book. It may have been part of my research into the phenomenon of identity. In this book Koestler examines the psychological phenomenon of creativity, more specifically the event of creation: the individual creative act. Where do new ideas come from? How are they formed or discovered?

These questions fascinate me for several reasons. For one thing, I'm a creative type. I'm interested to know more about this aspect of myself. For another, I want to look into the mysterious borderline between the mechanical and the free. For as living beings, we are combinations of the two: the great majority of the processes of our lives happen automatically, by reflex. But floating on that automatic flow is a free agent, an entity who chooses--and who creates. Where is the border between the automatic and the free? How does it work? How does it change? I expect Koestler to examine those questions.

Then there is the fact that creation, in the words of religious scholar Mircea Eliade, is "the divine act par excellence." Creation is finally the prerogative of the gods. When we humans create, we partake of the divine.

The kicker for me was the fact that I had so enjoyed Koestler's later book The Ghost in the Machine, actually the third book in a trilogy of which The Act of Creation is the second book (the first is The Sleepwalkers--a copy of which I've owned since 1986 but have not yet read!). I've talked about The Ghost in the Machine before. I found his ideas powerful and persuasive. I admired his boldness and originality as a thinker, as well as the clarity, vividness, and passion of his prose--that interesting and humbling phenomenon of the foreign-born (Hungarian in this case) writer taking up English and beating most native writers in its use. As an explicator of scientific ideas, he belongs in the pantheon along with (in my opinion) Isaac Asimov. (Interesting side-note: all the writers I've mentioned here--Koestler, Eliade, and Asimov--were polymaths and creators whose works spanned both fiction and nonfiction in various fields; plus they were all of East European birth, with Eliade born in Romania and Asimov in Russia.)

In The Ghost in the Machine Koestler developed the powerful new idea of the holon--a unit of spontaneous organization in an "open hierarchical system", which means any "system", including especially living organisms, that behaves in organized, purposive ways. In this theory, any such system is made up of relatively autonomous parts, which in turn are made up of other complex and relatively autonomous parts, and so on down the line. For example, we, as living beings, are made up of organs. The brain is a relatively coherent unit, although it forms only a part of the whole person; likewise the heart and the stomach. But the brain is made up of substructures, each of which has its own comparative autonomy within the system. There are structures specifically devoted to processing visual information, and for coordinating balance, and regulating speech, and so on. Thus, each "part" is also, from another perspective, a "whole" in its own right. In Koestler's terms, each is a holon: a neologism signifying something that is a "whole-part".

I've taken up Koestler's holons as part of my own developing theory of identity. Another thing I enjoyed about The Ghost in the Machine was how Koestler did not merely suggest a few new ideas, he boldly explored their implications as far as he could. He developed a whole system. In short, he took the ball and ran with it all the way to the end-zone: no timid half-steps for him. The book does not stretch a couple of thoughts into book length; it is a banquet of well-worked-out ideas, a feast--and I love that.

Given the author and the subject-matter, I have every reason to expect much enjoyment from my "new" used book. I started it yesterday at tea-time. So far, so good.

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