Eureka Moments II

Tuesday, October 01, 1996
I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance Huxley. I am therefore a poor critic; a paper or book, when first read, generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; I should, moreover, never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. . . . On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent. This pure love has, however, been much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists. From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed, that is, to group all facts under some general laws. These causes combined have given me the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem.

Charles Darwin, The Autobiography*

That which has been, it is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new; but it has already been in the ages before us.

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

Painting and sculpture, labour and good faith, have been my ruin and I continually go from bad to worse. Better would it have been for me if I had set myself to making matches in my youth. I should not be in such distress of mind.

Michelangelo, letter, 1542

Every mathematician worthy of the name has experienced . . . the state of lucid exaltation in which one thought succeeds another as if miraculously . . . this feeling may last for hours at a time, even for days. Once you have experienced it, you are eager to repeat it but [are] unable to . . . unless perhaps by dogged work.

Andre Weil, The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician

The painter goes through states of fullness and evaluation. That is the whole secret of art. I go for a walk to the forest of Fontainebleau. I get green indigestion. I must get rid of this sensation into a picture. Green rules it. A painter paints to unload himself of feelings and visions.

What does it mean for a painter to paint in the manner of So-and- So or to actually imitate someone else? What’s wrong with that? On the contrary, it’s a good idea. You should constantly try to paint like someone else. But the thing is, you can’t! You would like to. You try. But it turns out to be a botch. . . . And it’s at the very moment you make a botch of it that you’re yourself.

Pablo Picasso, from Picasso on Art:

A Selection of Views, edited by Dore Ashton

In every field, things get so specialized. The generalist--and artists are often, by necessity, generalists--winds up feeling a sense of futility. At the moment I’m trying, for example, to write about Kobo Abe, the Japanese novelist. I’m reading him, as I have to, in English. There are Japanese souls who have spent the last few decades pondering him. Am I going to come up with anything new or special? Well, my hope is yes. I cling to the optimistic belief that the haphazard and the hopscotch, the creature that sips among many flowers, may actually come up with something. . . . One holds to the sense that [by] just sipping broadly enough, from enough flowers, strange and fruitful pollinations will arise.

Brad Leithauser, from Uncommon

Genius: Tracing the Creative Impulse With Forty Winners of the MacArthur Award, by Denise Shekerjian

I can say, if I like, that social insects behave like the working parts of an immense central nervous system: the termite colony is an enormous brain on millions of legs; the individual termite is a mobile neurone. This would mean that there is such a phenomenon as collective thinking, which goes on whenever sufficient numbers of creatures are sufficiently connected to one another, and it would also mean that we humans could do the same trick if we tried, and perhaps we’ve already done it, over and over again, in the making of language and the meditative making (for which the old Greek word poesis is best) of metaphors.

Lewis Thomas, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.

Carl Jung, Psychological Types

For art to exist . . . a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

*For full references, please see Further Reading, page 118.
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