We writers in any hue of cloth, and artists of any kind in the larger picture, are often beset by lacerating feelings of inadequacy about the whole project we are engaged in. What does it even mean to write poems or stories, drawing up the innermost deep of ourselves like so many trees pulling fragile ribbons of water from the dreaming soil–shimmering towers of nothing standing in the green dark that we hope against hope won’t break and fall (even though they often do)? What does it mean to be a storyteller or an artist, a poet or a musician, in a world that doesn’t seem to care one way or another whether it publishes your next book or flattens your home with a tornado?
On the face of it, creative pursuits seem a trivial thing in the world, a decadent luxury our species has indulged in because and only because it had a lucky window to do so, a brief hiatus of a few thousand years from the snarling business of animal survival that is the lot of all other fauna in response to life’s onslaught, “nasty, brutish and short.” Even in our modern world, the unstated priorities discernible in society make it seem little more than a brief interlude from the more serious business of moneymaking, corporate mergers, and environmental devastation.
But appearances, after all, can sometimes be deceptive.
I guess cosmological speculation is an occasional pastime of mine. This is not because I perceive myself particularly qualified to engage in it; rather, I have an inquisitive mind and I just can’t help it. There are many different ways to map the world’s behaviors, and it is not immediately clear just by this activity which of these maps (if any) is the more correct one. By one mapping for example, humans and anything that they do, anything that they could ever do, are such a trivial event in the cosmos that they could be smeared from existence as easily as rubbing your thumb over the bloom on a peach, without anyone even realizing that we’d gone (or that we’d ever been there). The physicist Stephen Hawking warned recently that we should be wary of sending our TV broadcasts and our other electromagnetic effluvia out into space, in case someone, somewhere with a compound eye trained on our planet might be tempted to flip it for real estate. But this is romantic in the sense that anyone or anything would even care enough to do so. By volume of mass in the universe even our star system would fail to register as a single grain of sand on the world’s largest beach. And as for life on earth, if we measure that by mass, even just the mass of the earth, it barely amounts to a split hair on a mammoth.
We’re good at talking ourselves down, aren’t we?
However, assessment by mass is not the only way to evaluate the universe. Other acetates can be laid over cosmological history. Imagine you are trapped in a sealed room with a viciously ingenious explosive device set to detonate in forty minutes. Behind you stands a bookcase, long and tall, comprising a thousand volumes of erudite material. Somewhere in that bookcase (but where?) there is an ever so slim volume on how to pick different types of locks successfully, and another on how to defuse unusual bombs. That reading material, if we weighed it relative to the total mass, or assessed it by its number of words in proportion to the informational whole, would be trivial. But suddenly it has become the most important reading material in the bookcase. If you don’t locate it in time, you are done for. The bookcase and what it contains hasn’t changed physically. But the mapping laid over it has changed the situation dramatically. If that bookcase truly exists in a “bomb about to explode” universe, then the difference really matters. It’s not just an intellectual game.
Likewise, if this universe (the real one, I mean now) is a place where the creative impulse in conscious beings (perhaps even only in ourselves) is something more than trivial, then that difference really matters too.
I am going to make a case that meaning in our lives, and in the world in general, may find a home in this second scenario. Let me try to clarify what I mean by this (pun intended). What do we mean by meaning? I know this is one of these uber-pretentious questions that make you want to go out and vomit in the snow (if there is any available) but in this discussion at least, it could hardly be left unasked. What I do not intend is an externally imposed meaning. I do not intend an objective meaning in the sense of something that is attached to the world from the outside or from a transcendent other, or (in alternative phrasing) that the world has a meaning to be found in something that is not the world. Again, I am not hating on such positions, it just isn’t my own trend, and thus won’t be the territory I explore here.
However, I also don’t just intend mere subjective meaning. The way we usually think about meaning is attributive, in the fashion of a decoration or afterthought attached to a circumstance or thing. It may be very important to us, but it doesn’t inhere in the “thing.” So, for example, when I was a kid I used to grow cacti as a hobby. At one local plant show, to my infinite astonishment, I won first prize for my cactus, as well as third prize simultaneously, which was all a little too much for my blossoming young ego to deal with. Even though it was just a local show (and, realistically, pretty much no one else could care less, especially after that season passed) I held on to those prize cards for YEARS. They were something that held importance and value for me. The orthodox view would say that this meaning was my psychological invention. I conferred it upon a red piece of card with the text “CURRIE & BALERNO ANNUAL FLOWER SHOW. CACTI & SUCCULENTS SECTION: FIRST PRIZE.” Even the text is attributive. These are squiggles called letters that we agree by convention to signify certain things for us.
The case I am going to make begins with the observation that meaning is a creative act, and it is the creative act, the creative utterance, that interests me.
Let’s enter the matter softly. The first thing to be said is that creativity doesn’t feel trivial, especially for those who know the maddening pressure of its insistence. It doesn’t give the internal signals of being a superfluous add-on to the textures of life, like a plastic flamingo or a novelty paperweight. While the way we feel about things may not seem like the most reliable measure, this doesn’t convince me that our instinct on the matter speaks with a false voice. The trivialization of all emotional life into the “subjective” was part of the cauterizing surgery performed on the world under Descartes. Creativity seems to me like an urge we cannot suppress. It is an upward pressure from the irrational body of being, a much larger and more ancient structure than its cognitive head, which (in geological terms anyway) just broke surface a few minutes ago. This irrational body is the home country of dream and myth, of music and song and story, of ritual and dance, of the surreal and the emotional and the passionate. In brief, it is the territory of everything that the mechanistic view of nature badly wants to believe the world does not consist of.
But if (as I am inclined to suggest) human creativity is simply the most developed or lucidly focused instance of a more general principle or function operating throughout nature, then this function has always been a part of what nature is and does, and may even be the principle at the heart of the morphic dreaming that shapes the creatures of life, such that when Descartes took the value-laden world and amputated it, he made a fatal kind of mistake, the limit case of throwing the baby with the bathwater, which in a sense we’ve been paying the price for ever since, no matter what benefits may also be said to have come our way.