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About the Author
Raymond Williams was a cultural critic, commentator, and professor. He is the author of several books, including Border Country, The Country and the City, Culture and Society, Keywords, Loyalties, and People of the Black Mountains.
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The Long Revolution
By Raymond Williams
ParthianCopyright © 2011 Raymond Williams
All rights reserved.
The Creative Mind
No word in English carries a more consistently positive reference than 'creative', and obviously we should be glad of this, when we think of the values it seeks to express and the activities it offers to describe. Yet, clearly, the very width of the reference involves not only difficulties of meaning, but also, through habit, a kind of unthinking repetition which at times makes the word seem useless. I propose to examine the significance of the 'creative' idea: first, by reviewing its history; second, by comparing its development as a term in the arts with some important recent scientific work on perception and communication; third, by looking at it as a possible key term in our contemporary discussion of culture – a discussion which centres on the relations between art and learning, and the whole complex of our activities that we call our society.
The history of the 'creative' idea is in many ways difficult to trace. It seems to me to begin, essentially, in the thought of the Renaissance, but, when we look at these sources, we find its originators referring the idea to classical thought, as if unaware of the new emphasis they seem to be making. In any past writing, only part of the original meaning is recoverable, for the meaning as a whole has come to us through many minds, and even when we have distinguished their influence we find that the original significance is, with its context, still partly withheld. Yet as I read the authors, in particular Aristotle and Plato, on whom these Renaissance thinkers relied, I see a distinction, an altered significance, which seems of fundamental importance. The activity being described is a common activity, but its description, essentially, has altered.
We speak now of the artist's activity as 'creation', but the word used by Plato and Aristotle is the very different 'imitation'. The general meaning of the Greek word mimesis is either 'doing what another has done', or 'making something like something else'. In actual use it included the activities of the dancer, the singer, the musician, the painter, the sculptor, the actor, the dramatist, and the common quality in these activities was seen as 'the representation of something else': 'imitation'. Aristotle wrote:
The general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason of the delight in seeing the picture is that one is at the same time learning – gathering the meaning of things.
It seems clear from this, as from the whole of his main argument, that Aristotle considers art primarily as a representation of some hitherto-existing reality. The artist imitates this, and by his imitation, which is akin to our first process of learning, we gather the meaning of the thing that is imitated.
Plato, similarly, described the artist as an 'imitator' of a pre-existing reality. God was the creator of things; workmen the artificers of things; artists the imitators of things. Thus, Plato and Aristotle agree on the fact of imitation, but go on to draw different conclusions from it. For Plato, although in the Ion he describes the poet as divinely inspired, the act of imitation is at two removes from reality (the Idea, then the material thing, then the imitation) and the famous discussion in the Republic, proposing the censorship of poets, emphasises the dangers of the influence of these 'mere imitators' on the weaker parts of the mind.
The art of imitation is the worthless mistress of a worthless friend, and the parent of a worthless progeny ... The imitative poet ... resembles the painter in producing things that are worthless when tried by the standard of truth, and he resembles him also in this, that he holds intercourse with a part of the soul which is like himself, and not with the best part ... He excites and feeds this worthless part of the soul, and thus destroys the rational part.
Aristotle, on the other hand, not only emphasises imitation as part of the normal learning process, but introduces a new principle, that of 'the universal':
The poet's function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary ... Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do – which is the aim of poetry though it affixes proper names to the characters; by a singular statement, one as to what, say, Alcibiades did or had done to him.
Thus while Plato emphasises the dangers of fiction, as the imitation not even of ultimate reality but of mere appearances, Aristotle develops his concept of imitation as a form of learning towards its definition as the highest form of learning, in that it shows, through its universal statements, the permanent and the necessary.
The immense intellectual tradition which flowed from Plato and Aristotle came to include not only these two opposing valuations, but an extraordinary series of modifications, transvaluations, developments and interpretations. Thus Platonism came to include a theory of art directly opposed to that of the Republic, arguing that the divinely inspired poet was able to teach the highest reality because he penetrated mere appearance, and embodied in his work the divine Idea. Aristotle's idea of universals, which in context reads primarily as the embodiment of general truths about human nature, became identified, in many minds, as the same doctrine: the universals were the divine Ideas, and the poet embodied them. Still, however, even after these developments, the process of art was 'imitation' and not 'creation'.
From the excitement and confusion of Renaissance theory four doctrines of art emerged. The first defined art as an imitation of the hidden reality, thus making it a form of revelation; this was particularly useful to some Christian thinkers, who could then see art as an allegory of the mind of God. This developed into the idea of art as an esoteric activity, and a high valuation of works of an allegorical or symbolic kind. The second doctrine, from much the same source but less affected by Christian thinking, saw art as a perpetual imitation and embodiment of the 'Idea of Beauty'. This came to include, in practice, the idea of imitating, not slavishly yet seriously, earlier works of art in which this Idea of Beauty was embodied (this is the major tradition which became known as classicism). The third doctrine, developing some of the emphases of Aristotle, saw art as the 'idealisation of nature'; that is to say, showing things not as they are but as they ought to be. This, while based on the same source as allegiance to the 'Idea of Beauty', moved not towards classicism, but towards an important tradition of exemplary, moralising and didactic works. The fourth doctrine, from which the 'creative' emphasis primarily springs, saw nature as God's art (Tasso) and saw art as a form of energy which vies with nature. As Castelvetro put it:
Art is not a thing different from nature, nor can it pass beyond the limits of nature; it sets out with the same purpose as that of nature.
This purpose is a distinct form of creation. Nature is God's creation; art is man's creation. 'There are two creators,' Tasso wrote, 'God and the poet.'
In any particular Renaissance work one is likely to find the four doctrines that I have here distinguished, not as alternatives, but frequently involved with each other, as the extreme ambiguity and vagueness of the terms makes easily possible. But in the more important writers the tendency towards a distinctly humanist theory of art is quite marked. For some centuries yet, the idea of art as creation, in a kind of rivalry with God, would seem blasphemous. Yet, entangled as it was with both actual and false reliance on Plato and Aristotle, complicated as it was by different kinds of Christian tradition, the emergence of this idea can be seen as part of the new thinking of the Renaissance, and at the head of a line which leads down to our day. In the English tradition, its classical statement is that of Sidney. All other 'arts' and 'sciences' (astronomy, mathematics, music, philosophy, law, history, grammar, rhetoric, medicine, metaphysics) are, Sidney argues, tied to nature.
Onely the Poet, disdayning to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his owne invention, dooth growe in effect another nature, in making things either better then Nature bringeth forth, or, quite a newe, formes such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as hee goeth hand in hand with Nature, not inclosed within the narrow warrant of her guifts, but freely ranging onely within the Zodiack of his owne wit,
Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapistry as divers poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet smelling flowers, nor whatsoever els may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brasen, the Poets only deliver a golden. But let those things alone and goe to man, for whom as the other things are, so it seemeth in him her uttermost cunning is imployed, and knowe whether shee have brought foorth so true a lover as Theagenes, so constant a friend as Pylades, so valiant a man as Orlando, so right a Prince as Xenophon's Cyrus, so excellent a man every way as Virgils Aeneas. Neither let this be jestingly conceived, because the works of the one be essentiall, the other, in imitation or fiction; for any understanding knoweth the skil of the Artificer standeth in that Idea or foreconceite of the work, and not in the work it selfe. And that the Poet hath that Idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellencie as hee hath imagined them. Which delivering forth also is not wholie imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build Castles in the ayre; but so farre substantially it worketh, not onely to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellencie, as Nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the worlde, to make many Cyrus's, if they wil learne aright why and how that Maker made him.
Neyther let it be deemed too sawcie a comparison to ballance the highest poynt of mans wit with the efficacie of Nature: but rather give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker, who, having made man to his owne likenes, set him beyond and over all the workes of that second nature, which in nothing hee sheweth so much as in Poetrie, when with the force of a divine breath he bringeth things forth far surpassing her doings, with no small argument to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam, sith our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching it.
The strands of many traditions can be seen in this, but the decisive novelty (it is not Sidney's, but of his period) is clear. This is the doctrine of man the creator, who 'with the force of a divine breath' brings forth 'things far surpassing' nature. Sidney glances back at one part of Plato's teaching, to find this force given by God to one kind of man, the poet. But the claim occurs within a larger movement of thought, in which man is asserting his right to break out of the order of nature: to see the rest of nature as subordinate to his creative will. For Sidney, poetry can be supernatural because it is an energy of the soul which in discovering God is able to create beyond natural limits. But another way of making the same claim is to assert a purely human creativity, the powers of the emergent mind. When imitation, the learning of reality, becomes creation, man making new reality, a critical stage in art and thought has been reached.
As we follow the historical argument, we find a growing complexity, as the implications of this claim are realised. In Marvell's famous verse in The Garden, we are still with Sidney, but the point is interestingly put:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas,
Annihilating all that's made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.
This 'creation' is still, as the whole poem makes clear, an energy of the soul which is an approach to God. But it assumes, as a contrast with this, an order of natural seeing, 'where each kind does streight its own resemblance find'. Sidney also had assumed this, but had claimed that only the poet could go beyond it. In Marvell this is a creative activity of the human mind as such. It is this emphasis that we must bear in mind as we watch the extraordinary flowering of the creative idea in the development of what we now call Romantic thought. The attachment of 'creative' to the work of the artist remains the easiest to trace. Donne spoke of poetry as 'a counterfeit Creation'. Mallet, in 1728, spoke of the 'companion of the Muse, Creative Power, Imagination'. By the end of the eighteenth century, this emphasis, with its keyword, 'imagination', was becoming paramount. The main line runs as an emphasis on 'creative imagination' as a general human faculty, which is seen at its highest in the poet. This is the basis of Shelley's Defence of Poetry, which like Sidney's Apologie contains many strands of traditional thought, but is most significant in relation to developing ideas of perception and imagination:
Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody, alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound.
This, of course, is still 'imitation', with the addition of the organising principle – what Shelley calls 'synthesis' – as the creative human act. The child and the savage imitate external objects, and
language and gesture, together with plastic or pictorial imitation, become the image of the combined effect of those objects, and of his apprehension of them.
To be a poet is to carry to its highest form this general activity:
to apprehend ... the good which exists ... in the relation subsisting first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.
The poet does this through the use of a language which is
vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.
The 'authors of revolutions in opinion' act similarly, for
their words unveil the permanent analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth.
A poem is
the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.
Here Shelley returns to the emphasis of Sidney, which in other parts of his argument he had perhaps been moving beyond. He returns again, but with altered emphasis, in his most famous definition:
All things exist as they are perceived; at least in relation to the percipient. 'The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.' But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life's dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is chaos. It reproduces the common Universe of which we are portions or percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso: Non Merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta (none merits the name of creator, except God and the poet).
Excerpted from The Long Revolution by Raymond Williams. Copyright © 2011 Raymond Williams. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Foreword to the Pelican Edition Introduction
- The Creative Mind
- The Analysis of Culture
- Individuals and Societies
- Images of Society
- Education and British Society
- The Growth of the Reading Public
- The Growth of the Popular Press
- The Growth of ‘Standard English’
- The Social History of English Writers
- The Social History of Dramatic Forms
- Realism and the Contemporary Novel
Britain in the 1960s
Notes to the Pelican Edition Index