Tag Archives: Creation

The act of creation

I’ve been thinking recently about creation in human experience, and also how this relates to the symbolism of creation in the Bible. I’m indebted to Iain McGilchrist here, who, in ‘The Master and his Emissary’ points out the difference between left hemisphere and right hemisphere forms of creation: I will call them reproductive and mimetic forms of creation. The more I reflect on this difference the richer it seems.

In the reproductive form of creation, some kind of idea, plan, or copy (whether mental or physical) of what is to be produced already exists. A new version of that copy is produced.

However, in the mimetic sense of creation, something already exists that may have a closer or more distant resemblance to the thing to be created: it may just be ‘raw material’ that is to be shaped, but in accordance with how it already is. The existing materials are recombined so as to produce something new that was not previously combined in that way, whether in the object itself or in the mind of the creator.God

The crucial differences between these forms of creation depend on what is going on in the mind of the creator.

In the reproductive sense of creation, there are clear goals and representations of what is to be created, and the process of creation is merely to reproduce those goals as precisely as possible. The representations may or may not include an actual copy of the thing to be produced already in existence. A construction engineer building a bridge from a set of painstaking designs in creating in this sense, as is a factory production worker who merely controls a machine that is pre-set to reproduce identical plastic parts over and over again. In this sense of creation, the left hemisphere is heavily dominant.

Reproductive creation follows a positive feedback loop in which an idea is fixed on, a copy of that idea is constructed, and then the constructed thing reinforces the idea. However, reproductive creation will only actually succeed to a certain extent. The plastic parts may appear identical, but will have microscopic variations. The bridge may follow the specification as precisely as possible, but there will be at least some small divergences from it. However, the mental state accompanying this kind of creation focuses on the goal of copying, and will either be frustrated by a lack of exactness in the copying or will deny that there is any such lack, re-interpreting the creation to fit the idea and pretending in ad hoc fashion that it was intended to be like that all along. Any divergence from the plan, if it is admitted, is a failure. The view of the world adopted is one where it is assumed that it is possible to copy exactly because there is an absolute relationship between the specification and the creation. Whilst it may be admitted, on philosophical enquiry, that the copy in the plan is not exactly the same as the created thing, the reproductive creator will insist on the absoluteness of the relationship. This relationship can be called isomorphism from the Greek for ‘same shape’.

In the mimetic sense of creation, on the other hand, there is no expectation of any isomorphism between a plan or a previous model and what is created. Rather it is accepted that both the form of what is created and its meaning to us will depend on various variable factors: the nature of the materials, the mental state and expectations of the creator, or other incidental factors that contribute to what is produced. It is not that the creator will lack plans or intentions, for these will always have to be present to some extent for the activity of creation to occur at all. However, it is accepted that the creation will in some respects have a life that is independent of the creator. Different goals may emerge in the process of creation that were not envisaged at the beginning. A wider harmony and integrity will be sought for the creation which is only partially in line with any wishes the creator may have started with, also responding to the conditions that arose in the process of creation.

In contrast to the positive feedback loop involved in reproductive creation, mimetic creation involves a negative feedback loop. An idea of what is to be made is put into operation, but differences between the idea and the creation are not seen as failures, rather as new conditions to be learnt from and responded to. In this way the idea of what is being created continually changes along with the thing being created.

The mimetic sense of creation is obviously one that applies to works of art, following the senses discussed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Erich Auerbach. It also applies to parenthood – at least if it is pursued with wisdom rather than with inflexible plans for the child. Mimesis is obviously the embodied type of creativity. It is a type of creativity pursued with an active and integrated role for the right hemisphere, taking new conditions into account as well as the left hemisphere’s goals and representations. We tend to describe people as ‘creative’ who have learnt to manage the process of mimetic creation with confidence.

I don’t want to imply here that reproduction is necessarily bad: it is just limited when compared to mimesis. The problem with reproduction seems to be when it is absolutised: when we expect copies to be exact, and plans to be precisely reproducible. There are some horrendous examples in history of big plans that were put into operation with hardly any consideration for the conditions: perhaps the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme is the most astonishingly arrogant and incompetent example I have come across. Mimesis, on the other hand, is not only a quality of the best art, but also the best political proposals and the best engineering projects, among many other things.

If you apply these ideas about Creation to God’s creation of the world in Genesis, they can be related to the debate about what sort of creation Genesis is describing. Did God  simply have a plan that he put into operation regardless? If so, we could read the Creation story as a left hemisphere fantasy of the total and precise enactment of a plan, based on total power. This way of thinking seems to be implied in the classic Christian interpretation of the Creation as ex nihilo – that is, as creating something out of nothing. Blake’s famous ‘Ancient of Days’ picture depicts this kind of creation.

But the text begins “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was a vast waste, darkness covered the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water.” (Gen 1:1-2), which can on the contrary be read as indicating that earth, ‘the deep’ and water already existed, and were merely formed by God. This interpretation would fit the influence of Babylonian and other near eastern creation stories on this one, as the other stories all involve prior existent matter.

If we try to let go of all the metaphysical claims and associations with Christian (and Jewish) dogmas in the Genesis story, we can read it archetypally and in accordance with human experience, simply as an inspiring symbol of creativity, with an archetypal God as a cosmic artist. God does have plans, but he also has raw materials and unexpected conditions to respond to. He pauses each day after making each new set of things before continuing, suggesting that he wasn’t just putting his plans into operation without reflection. What’s more, if you’re creating something as complex as life, you must expect it to respond in unexpected ways: as Adam and Eve are depicted as doing. For more on the Eden story, see my previous post, ‘Reconsidering the Fall’ (and also don’t miss Emilie Aberg’s excellent comment on that).

Reconsidering the Fall

I have been thinking recently about the Fall – no, not the leaves falling off the trees, in American parlance. I mean the story in the book of Genesis of the Bible, about how Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, then were expelled from the Garden of Eden by God. Just mentioning this story may raise the  hackles of secularists, who associate it with metaphysical dogma. However, I think there is an important distinction to be made between metaphysical claims, which are dogmatic, and stories and symbols, which are not. To make a claim like “Adam and Eve made all humans sinful” is metaphysical, and we can see the negative effects of the Christian dogma of Original Sin in terms of psychological conflict. However, to tell and re-interpret the myth of the Fall so as to relate it more usefully to experience is a different matter.Masaccio expulsion from Eden

The myth is a potent one. Take this very famous picture by Masaccio of the expulsion from Eden.  For me this communicates a very basic experience of suffering and links it powerfully to a sense of exclusion. The story is exploring the meaning of human suffering  through creating a story about its causes. Obviously, the way these causes are symbolised is to some extent dependent on the culture of the early Hebrews in which the story developed. However, one would also expect it to tap into more universal human experiences. How we interpret the story in terms of these is something we can play around with. I’m going to offer an interpretation which I think helps to relate the story to universal human experience. That doesn’t mean that I think that’s what the story is “really” about (the “really” would take us back into metaphysics). Rather it’s an interpretation, which I take responsibility for as such.

Let’s think about the basic elements of the story. It divides roughly into three: (1)God creates the Garden of Eden, (2) Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, and (3) then they are expelled.

If we take a Jungian interpretation of God and his meaning, he represents the integrated psyche, just as a Buddhist mandala does. God is a represented idealised form of how we would be if we were entirely free of conflict, internal or external, and we may associate this symbol with people we know or have heard of who may have got further on this road than we have – Wise Old Men and Wise Old Women. The Garden of Eden, said to be created by God, bears a similar interpretation. It is an idealised symbol of complete contentment through full integration.

However, this garden-mandala contains the seeds of conflict – the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I think one helpful way of interpreting this would be as the ego, or the obsessive function of a detached left hemisphere of the brain. When we eat the fruit (develop the representational functions of the left hemisphere) we gain power and insight because we are able to manipulate the world to our own ends far better than we were before. We can use language to make plans, instructions, warnings etc and communicate them to others. We are capable of gaining an increasingly coherent view of the world in which we act. However, this ability also comes at a price – the tendency of the left hemisphere to absolutise, to believe that it has the whole picture, and to turn its beliefs into metaphysical ones. This might be thought of as ‘knowledge of good and evil’ because of the ego’s tendency to accept and reject things dualistically, thinking of what it happens to like at the moment as ‘good’ and what it dislikes as ‘evil’.

By eating this forbidden fruit, then, we create suffering as well as power, because we exclude ourselves from the degree of integration between the hemispheres we might have otherwise. We emerge from an undifferentiated and implicit awareness into a world of concepts – a process that can be disorientating and alienating. We have been thrown out of the garden because we no longer feel whole in the sense that we might, and yearn for a missing integration.

One of the early church fathers, Irenaeus, described the sin of Adam and Eve as felix culpa, a ‘happy sin’. This suggests that he was getting to grips with the contradictions involved in the Fall. We feel shut out, but we also feel empowered by the ego and its associated conceptualisations. He perhaps implicitly recognised that the ego is not a bad thing to be destroyed, but the basis on which we can develop further. However, stretching the ego so as to gradually dilute its weaknesses requires effort and practice: we can’t rely on a  salvation from the effects of the Fall from Christ, as the metaphysical doctrines of Christianity have it.

The story of the Fall is such a basic part of Western culture, that it would be a great shame to merely shut it out by dismissing it as ‘untrue’, as some secularists appear to do. ‘Truth’ is really not a relevant test to apply in understanding what this story – or any story – has to offer. I would suggest that the Middle Way here involves finding creative ways to engage with it and harness its power – whether that is through the kind of interpretation I am suggesting or some other way. Even if we also recognise its limitations, every myth can speak to us in some way.