Nuance and Omnivalence

in the Creative Mind

Published in the journal of creativity, Advanced Development, 1995

By John Briggs

Western Connecticut State University

In 1953, Albert Einstein, the quintessential genius, declared that "I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent" beyond "curiosity, obsession, and dogged endurance..." (Greenberg, 1979, p. 216). Einstein's assertion challenges a central myth about creative genius--that it is inborn talent. Taken together with a story Einstein told on this 74th birthday, it also offers a window into an alternative explanation for the activity of high-level creative work.

When Einstein was five years old and ill in bed, his father brought him a magnetic compass. Years later he remembered being bewitched by the iron needle drawn toward north no matter which way the compass case was turned. It was "a wonder," he declared, referring to the power of the unseen field or force. "Young as I was," he said, "the remembrance of this occurrence never left me" (Holton, 1971, pp. 98-99). The phenomenon of the compass had stimulated the young Einstein to the realization that "something deeply hidden had to be behind things" (Clark, 1971, p. 29).

Gerald Holton (1973) has linked Einstein's early memory of the compass needle in an unseen magnetic field to the physicist's later work on relativity involving paradoxes connected with the electromagnetic waves of light traveling through a putative invisible ether; to Einstein's insistence that there must be "hidden variables" operating behind quantum theory; and to his quest for a "unified field theory."

Throughout his career Einstein seemed to be trying to unfold into the language of theoretical physics some nuance he felt embodied in the vibrating compass needle (Briggs, 1988). Virginia Woolf presents a similar case.

Woolf and Nuance

Late in her career, Woolf recalled what she described as her "first memory":

...It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water on the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one two, behind the yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive. (Woolf, 1976, p. 75)

Anyone familiar with Woolf's fiction will recognize that the hypnogogic overtones of this scene--particularly in terms of light and the rhythm of waves--infuses Woolf's work: It appears in her titles (The Waves, The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse), in her almost obsessive choice of wave imagery, wave metaphors, seaside settings, and, most especially, in the persistent wave like rise and fall of the consciousness flow she establishes in all her novels. She said of the St. Ives memory,

I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me. But I should fail (unless I had some wonderful luck): I dare say I should only succeed in having the luck if I had begun by describing Virginia herself. (Woolf, 1976, p. 75)

Woolf was well aware that the nuances of this St. Ives memory contained something essential to her creative life. In a letter to Vita Sackville West, she wrote:

Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing... one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it (Woolf, 1975-80, 3, p. 247).

Again and again in her critical writings Woolf moved to articulate the importance of nuance, meaning that lies in shades, shadows and penumbra around a central (though often to other people trivial) object, event, or statement. Think of such an object, event, or statement, as a pebble thrown into still water. Nuance surrounds it in a fading continuum of rings and waves. A. nuance (or complex of nuances) such as the that which Woolf experienced in the St. Ives "memory" (which may be a "screen memory") are artifacts of a hidden reality she believed it is the writer's "business to find... and collect... and communicate to the rest of us." (Woolf, 1981, p.110)

What is meant by "reality"? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable--now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech--and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. (Woolf, 1981, p. 110) *

One might also compare nuance to perfume. Typically, perfume is composed of a large number of scents, some of them the antithesis of pleasant aromas. Roots, mosses, beaver castoreum, even skunk oil, are common ingredients. The different scents fuse to produce a single, subtly vivid but richly elusive fragrance. Woolf's St. Ives nursery memory or Einstein's compass memory constitute the rich fragrance of a nuance containing many inseparably fused, or synesthetic, qualities of emotional, perceptual and cognitive.

Some other instances:

Beethoven was asked where his ideas for compositions came from and he replied that they emerged, in effect, from a state of heightened awareness to nuance. "They come to me in the silence of the night or in the early morning, stirred into being by moods" (Mies, 1974, p. 159).

American painter Georgia O'Keeffe wrote:

My first memory is of the brightness of light--light all around. I was sitting among pillows on a quilt on the ground--very large white pillows. The quilt was a cotton patchwork of two different kinds of material--white with very small red stars spotted over it quite close together, and black with a red-and-white flower on it. I was probably eight or nine months old. The quilt is partially a later memory, but I know it is the quilt I sat on that day. (O'Keeffe, 1976, p. 1)

Anyone familiar with O'Keeffe's paintings will immediately recognize in this description, hovering like a familiar perfume, the O'Keeffean quality of color and light. The number of anecdotal examples one can adduce indicating the importance creators attach to nuance, particularly to nuances they respond to in their earliest memories, is quite large (Briggs, 1988).

Omnivalence: The Hunger of 'More' and 'This*Other'-ness

The dynamics of nuance within the psyche can be described in the concept of "omnivalence."

Addressing a group of her Bloomsbury friends who met regularly to take turns entertaining each other with their memoirs, Woolf said:

Am I speaking for myself only when I say that though nothing worth calling an adventure that has befallen me since I last occupied this thorny and prominent chair I still seem to myself a subject of inexhaustible and fascinating anxiety?--a volcano in perpetual eruption? Am I alone in my egotism when I say that never does the pale light of dawn filter through the blinds of 52 Tavistock Square but I open my eyes and exclaim, "Good God! Here I am again!"--not always with pleasure, often with pain; sometimes with a spasm of acute disgust--but always, always with interest." (Woolf, 1976, p. 212)

Two things to notice in this statement. First, the echo of the St. Ives memory. Second, a quality of existential ambivalence-more pronounced in this statement than in the memory but revealing that the memory also contained ambivalence. But the ambivalence here is intriguing. It seems to contain an experimental attitude. Woolf's simultaneous "disgust" and "interest" is reminiscent of Robert Frost's declaration of himself as someone who had "a lover's quarrel with the world." Evidently, contradictory feelings which we might be inclined to identify as conflictual ambivalence, are, on closer examination, something else. Such feelings seem to be experienced by creators not as ambivalent conflict, but as possibilities, potentials, mystery, openness. Omnivalence might be a better term, from the Latin omni, meaning "affects all things," and related to ops "wealth," plus valence or "strength." (Briggs & McCluskey, 1989). When omnivalence occurs there is an emotion-perception-cognition of a powerful, global wealth in the moment, a wealth in which there may be many different, even contrary, elements, each equally strong but all fundamentally indistinguishable from each other so that even the contrary elements are really a single effect eliciting an impression that somehow "all of it,"(omni) "the whole world," is in this moment. We might associate the creator's experience of omnivalence both with a feeling of multi-valence and omni-presence. It is similar in some ways to ambivalence but quite unlike it as well because in ambivalence the psyche is divided between two states of mind competing for dominance. In omnivalence there is only one encompassing state containing somehow many states overlapped and not in competition.

The term omnivalence allows us to reframe the vivid response creators have to nuance. We might now put it that the response of the bodymind to those particular nuances which somehow resonate the creator's existential condition is that holistic sense of omnivalence. In Woolf's case, her biography makes abundantly clear that the St. Ives memory resonates profoundly with her existential condition, both at the time and in later years. In "A Sketch of the Past" (p. 76) Woolf couples the St. Ives memory with others, for example a memory of her mother and father on a balcony of their St. Ives bedroom next door to the nursery, memories of the sense of great change she experienced going from London to the seacoast. Her mother, father and change were lifelong preoccupations and subjects of rumination for Woolf. In the light, sound of waves, and movement of wind through her nursery, the St. Ives moment embodies, as Woolf indicates, her whole strong sense of what it is to be alive and to be that something called Virginia Woolf.

In Einstein's case, let me speculate the following: The sense of the compass needle in an invisible field, combined with young Einstein's feelings and thoughts about being ill, with his fantasies about biblical stories (Holton in Thematic Origins notes that Einstein was preoccupied with religious imaginings as a young child) and with the significance of his being brought the compass by his father. Perhaps Einstein felt in some way at that moment himself like-identified himself with-the compass needle floating in an invisible field. It both was him and it was outside him, other than him. The event-the kind of event that Woolf called (Sketch, p. 81) "moments of being."-contained ripples of nuance involving many different states of perception-cognition, emotion in young Einstein's mind.

Now, let's move more deeply into the dynamics of the omnivalence that is excited by nuance and which comes to seek nuance out.

A wonderful capsule expression of omnivalence pervades the opening sentence of Hemingway's (1953) short story, "In Another Country." The narrator, a wounded soldier, says, "In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more" (pp. 267-73). Consider the shadowy range of that line. For one thing it contains a host of overlapping emotions that we might ordinarily consider contrary: relief, loss, wistfulness, despair-and more. In fact, the sense that there is "more" to the narrator's situation, that it is "other" than can be described is a characteristic of omnivalence. Hemingway poignantly captures this 'more'-ness and "other-ness" in A Moveable Feast, where he writes about the years he and his first wife, Hadley, lived in Paris. He remembers spending a splendid day at the races and having a picnic, then a meal at a good restaurant.

It was a wonderful meal...but when we had finished and there was no question of hunger any more, the feeling that had been like hunger...was still there and was still there when we caught the bus home. It was there when we came in the room and after we had gone to bed and made love in the dark, it was there. When I woke with the windows open and the moonlight on the roofs of the tall houses, it was there. I put my face away from the moonlight into the shadow but I could not sleep and lay awake thinking about it. (Hemingway, 1964, p. 57)

The nuance of the moment includes a harmonious overlapping of implicit, potentially dissonant, emotions-eternity, vitality, brooding death, satiation, dissatisfaction-all of which are hunger and yet also much more than hunger.

A sense of "more-ness" and "other-ness" clearly infuses the scenes of Einstein's compass memory and Woolf's St. Ives memory. In their creative work both creators later "mined" and built on their impression that there was "more" in those omnivalent visions. In fact, for each, there proved to be a lifetime of "more" in them.

But we should not make the mistake of attaching omnivalence merely to particular moments in the creator's life. A moment may crystallize omnivalence but omnivalence is fundamentally a quality of attention, one we all possess to some degree but which creators cultivate. In creators a keen sense of omnivalence becomes central to the self-organizing creative process they engage in over a lifetime.

Mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell observed a sharp omnivalent undertone in his friend, Joseph Conrad-an omnivalence that had become inseparable from Conrad's way of being in the world. Russell had come to know Conrad in the author's later years, and said it was evident that Conrad experienced "civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths" (Simonton, 1984, p. 56). Russell's impression of Conrad is confirmed by Conrad's novels, which consistently convey that there is more to things than meets the eye or mind and that at any moment one may simply fall through the world into a hidden reality, a "heart of darkness."

As we've seen in the Hemingway passages and the Woolf and Einstein memories, the omnivalent sense of more'ness and other-ness is stimulated by situations containing a nuance of fused elements that, were we to unfuse them, would yield opposites, contrasts and even contraries.#

Recall the earlier analogy: A nuance is like a vivid but subtle perfume. Good perfume is made of such contrary-smelling substances as skunk oil and flowers. Because of the way the contraries interact with one another, the elements that make up the scent of a nuance remain elusive; it is neither one thing nor another. It is 'more'. It is "this" while it is also "other than this" and "more than this."

... Which leads us to another facet of omnivalence, a window into its dynamics which I'd like to try to convey by introducing a somewhat fanciful, neologism: 'this*other-ness'. In the omnivalent state, whatever is happening now in "this" moment, with "this" object or "this" memory, etc. also seems simultaneously more or "other" than what it seems. However, on the other hand, the impression of other-ness is also grounded right here in the immediacy of "this" object or memory, etc. which is before me. The psyche in omnivalence is suspended or cycles within the dynamics of 'this*other-ness' and this gives strength, movement and an impression of unfolding presence to the omnivalent experience. (The "*" symbol is meant to indicate that "this" and "other" are continually cycling--i.e., folding back--into each other.) It is easy to see why literary metaphor and literary irony would be used so extensively by artists to evoke a sense of omnivalent 'this*other-ness' in an audience. By definition, the very structure of irony and metaphor are such that what you are confronting is both "this" and "more/other than this." This is undoubtedly what short story writer Jorge Luis Borges meant when he said, "the aesthetic act is the imminence of a revelation which is never fulfilled" (Alitfano, 1983).

That a similar process is at work in the creative sciences is illustrated by Russell who, as it turned out, had reason to be sympathetic to Conrad's sense of omnivalence. In 1902, Russell discovered a hidden paradox in the new approach then being employed by mathematicians seeking to prove that the hundreds of theorems of arithmetic could be derived from a few assumptions using Aristotelian logic. To everyone's dismay, Russell detected a twist in the new mathematical argument that meant that as far as any totally systematic logical approach went, "each alternative leads to its opposite." In other words, Russell was describing a mathematical state of omnivalence or 'this*other-ness'. After introducing such a dramatic deep uncertainty into mathematical systems, however, Russell spent the next 20 years trying to prove that systematic certainty could nonetheless exist. "I wanted certainty in the kind of way in which people want religious faith" (Guillen, 1983, p. 210). Wanting religious faith, however, is not the same as having it. Such wanting is imminence never fulfilled. Thus, Russell was describing his own walk along the crust of lava, his own omnivalent acrobatics over the certainty/uncertainty precipice.

Federico Garcia Lorca called perceiving the truth of a great work of art perceiving its duende. His account suggests that duende is what I am calling omnivalence. Lorca wrote, "Duende likes the edge of things, the wound, is drawn to where [contrasting yet similar] forms fuse themselves [nuance] in a longing greater than their visible expressions [this*other-ness]" (Lorca, 1973, pp. 91,100).

And then there's the Mona Lisa's smile. Creativity researcher Albert Rothenberg points out that the nuance of that smile has been described throughout history in contrary ways, as "both 'good and wicked,' as well as both 'cruel' and 'compassionate'; 'smile of the Saints at Rheims' and 'worldly, watchful and self-satisfied'; showing both 'modesty and a secret sensuous joy.'" (Rothenberg, 1979, p. 170) The smile's embodiment of contraries creates a perception in viewers of omnivalence or something 'more,' including the viewer's onmivalent sense that the smile conveys some elusive and universal truth, a powerful all-ness as if the secret of the whole world is there.

Creators frequently try to express their belief that the essential creative state is one in which contraries are no longer contrary but are instead part of an all encompassing, essential movement. Woolf said she was able to "achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords" (Love, 1977, p. 276). Stravinsky (1970) claimed he accomplished unity in his compositions by a "harmony of varieties." "Variety," he said, "is valid only as a means of attaining similarity...Similarity is hidden; it must be sought out..." (p. 32).

The language of omnivalence is tricky, however. The words opposite, contrary, contrast, variety and similarity, symmetry and discord create a false impression that polarization may be the central feature of omnivalence. Polarization is certainly a central feature of thought. But omnivalence goes beyond thought. In fact, that's the point. That's why creators are so drawn to their moments of omnivalence awareness.

In omnivalence the mind appears to extend itself into what quantum physicist and philosopher David Bohm called "the space between" thoughts. In the space between the polarized knowns of thought lies a richness of potential meanings, the realm of nuance. In an interview I did with him some years ago (1984) , Bohm noted, "If you say north and south are opposites, you then have to recognize there's a whole range in between. Therefore you have to tremendously enrich the field..." He was highlighting another important facet of omnivalent awareness.

The chief instruments of creative writers--metaphor and irony--use simultaneous identity and contrast to record, and to reproduce in readers, this space between. John Donne's famous metaphor comparing two lovers to the two legs of a drawing compass depends upon compelling the reader's mind to explore the rich unmarked territory between the items that are held in such different categories of thought that they are contraries in effect, if not in fact. The this*other-ness structure of the metaphor (lovers are a compass, well, no they're not, but of course yes, they are...) keeps the gap alive.

Irony also explores the gap by making a statement mean both what it says and something either opposite, contrasting or categorically dissonant. Oedipus proclaims that he's going to get the murderer of his father. His statement is ironical because the murderer turns out to have been Oedipus himself. Literary irony is a highly efficient instrument for conveying nuance and evoking the "beyond thought" dynamic of omnivalence. Philosopher of art Suzanne Langer said, "The very structure of human feeling is ironical" and that that is what the artist captures. (Langer, 1953, p. 252)

In the normal course of thinking and feeling, the omnivalent aspects of the world, which irony and metaphor so wonderfully express, are simplified into the categories of our literal and seemingly reliable reality. A great creative work like Oedipus Rex plunges our awareness into a richness and fundamental uncertainty (the 'more') that lies around us and within the spaces of our thoughts and emotions.

Poet John Keats argued that the chief attribute of a creator was what he called "Negative Capability," that is the ability to be "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." (Keats, p.54) In his famous poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" Keats uses metaphor and irony to make the case that the purpose of art is in fact to metaphorically "tease us out of thought as doth eternity."

If we allow the theories of Arthur Koestler (1964) and French philosopher Henri Bergson (1911), humor can be fitted into this picture. The cultured doyenne who gets a pie in her face has something in common with irony and metaphor. For irony, metaphor, humor all undercut our fixed meanings, suddenly springing upon us the revelation that things which we have categorized emotionally as contraries and contrasts (grandes dames and slung food) are not so contrasting and contrary after all. And yet they are. So round and round they go in "the space between" and 'this*other-ness' of omnivalence. Creative vision contains a playful quality. The Hemingway line, "The war was always there, but we did not go to it any more" has a kind of cosmic humor. Picasso's paintings, even Einstein's relativity, are playful. For example, one might consider the subtle humor in the fact that Einstein's first name for his idea, "Invarianten Theorie," becomes, in its published form, "relativity theory."

Bohm believed that since thought itself is normally polarized--asserting one opposite or another--omnivalence can be considered the result of a momentary suspension of thought. "If you hold these opposites together," Bohm said, "then you suspend thought and your mind must move to a new level. The suspension of thought allows an intelligence beyond thought to act. Then you can create a new form."

David Shainberg offered a similar idea. Author of The Transforming Self, Shainberg was a psychotherapist who gave up his practice in order to pursue a career as a painter. He wrote extensively about the structure of consciousness. "Consciousness itself is a polar phenomenon," he said in an interview with me (1986). "Given that, one capacity of the creator is to make clear that we're in polarity and not in it at the same time."

The semiotician Alfred Korzybski proclaimed in what have now become maxims, "Whatever you say a thing is, it isn't" and "the map is not the territory." A moment of omnivalence makes the mind unequivocally aware this is the case.

Sensitivity to omnivalent awareness is likely related to the frequent ambivalence and polarized personality traits found in the biographies of many great creators. If feelings of simultaneous love/hate toward a parent or an uneasiness over one's sexual identity do nothing else, they acquaint a future creator with the inadequacy and uncertainty of what are presumably the most basic categories we use to define our lives. Ambivalence about life, sexuality, authority, money or anything else can undermine and cripple (as it usually does), or it can link to a wider questioning, sensitivity and exploration at the boundaries of the contraries that schematize our existence. It is easy enough to imagine how a creator's psychological ambivalences (such as we all have) and personality polarities (such as we all have) might become marshaled in the creative process to the service of omnivalence. It's also easy to see how the tendency to omnivalence might heighten the degrees the polarities and propensity for ambivalence in the creator's day-to-day personality and life.^ Quite probably omnivalence and psychological ambivalence cross-catalyze each other. It would be wrong to conclude from this, however, that psychological ambivalence, manic-depressive behavior or any other psychopathological state is a precondition for omnivalent awareness. Or that omnivalent awareness is in any way a pathway to pathology. The alleged link between pathology and creativity is strong in the minds of a great many creativity theorists, in fact an article of faith. And every decade it receives a new expression (the manic depressive is the latest). The reasons for this probably have to do with the profound uneasiness our culture has over uncontrolled creative activity. Labeling high level creativity as somehow pathological or necessitating pathology, enables us to keep it at a distance where we can admire creative products and ourselves avoid creative process-a process which is inherently destabilizing to our images and categories of self and society.

The transformation and mutual catalyzing of ambivalence and omnivalence is evident in the next passage from Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein, who became known for his cinematic depictions of cruelty, grew up in an abusive household and cruelty became part of his vision. He claimed that this aspect of vision was inspired by an image in a French film he saw when he was very young. The image seems to have had the effect of crystalizing Eisenstein awareness of omnivalence in such a way that it acted like a seed crystal setting up a chain of further omnivalence. The French film was about a farmer who had some prisoners working on his farm. One of them was a sergeant who fell in love with the farmer's wife. In retribution the farmer had the man branded on the shoulder. Eisenstein said:

In my childhood it gave me nightmares. It used to come to me at night. Sometimes I became the sergeant, sometimes the branding iron. I would grab hold of his shoulder. Sometimes it seemed to be my own shoulder. At other times it was someone else's. I no longer knew who was branding whom. For years on end, blond side-whiskers (the sergeant was fair) or black ones...evoked this scene from me. Until the time came when...the ocean of cruelty in my own films swamped the impressions produced by this "fateful" film... (Leyda, 1982, p. IX).

Every time Eisenstein visualized some scene of cruelty to put in a film, he would see in his mind the smoke rising from the prisoner's flesh.

Possibly the branding image reflects Eisenstein's ambivalence about the cruelty he was subjected to by his parents-his anger at them, for example, coupled with his opposing guilt that he may have somehow deserved such treatment. But there is 'more.' In his mind he doesn't know who is being cruel to whom. The film image has become an image saturated with omnivalence. This omnivalence becomes reflected in Eisenstein's own films as a profound ambiguity between cruel acts (disorder) he depicts and the aesthetic order of the films themselves (recall the terrible order of the scene in "Potemkin" where a baby carriage careens endlessly down a government building staircase.

Shainberg (1986) proposed that the dynamic contraries and the space between of omnivalence help the creator see the truth without judging or excusing it. When the creator is beyond categorizing judgments, (s)he is beyond what (s)he knows. "It's the willingness to be aware of that. Then one sees that the truth exists beyond even the creative form one makes. It might be embedded in that form, and the creator tries to convey that, but it is also beyond it."

Such a sense spreads out across creative process. Praised for one of his poems, Shelley said that the words conveyed only a shadow of what he saw. Beethoven wrote of being inspired by the contemplation of the night sky, but that

when from time to time I try to give shape and form in sound to the feelings roused within me, alas! I meet with cruel disappointment. In disgust I throw away the sheet of paper I have soiled, and am almost convinced that no earthborn being can ever hope to set down by means of sounds, words, colour, or in sculpture, the heavenly pictures that rise before his awakened imagination! (Mies, 1974, pp. 160-61)

Newton said:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting himself and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the greater ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. (Gardner, 1974, p. 147)

In the 'more'-ness of omnivalence also lurks a circular paradox: The act of expressing it is an act of immersing oneself in it. Flannery O'Connor articulated this when she said:

It is what is left over when everything explainable has been explained that makes a story worth writing and reading. The writer's gaze has to extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm of mystery which is the concern of prophets. True prophecy in the novelist's case is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meanings and thus of seeing far things close up. If a writer believes that the life of a man is and will remain essentially mysterious, what he sees on the surface, or what he understands, will be of interest to him only as it leads him into the experience of mystery itself. (Meaders, 1962)

The pervasiveness of omnivalent 'more'-ness for creators is implied in experimental evidence gathered in a University of Chicago study that showed that the higher level the creator, the more likely (s)he is to feel that more could be done to improve the work (Weisberg, 1986).

Koestler (1964) called the 'more'ness aspect of omnivalence in scientists an "oceanic sense of wonder" that occurs in the vision of great scientists no matter what their religious persuasion or lack of persuasion. Koestler's list of exemplars for this oceanic wonder includes Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Franklin, Faraday, Maxwell, Darwin and Pasteur. Galileo, for example,was the first of a race of scientists convinced of the infallibility of their "exact empirical methods," in fact he created the type. It comes as a surprise to hear him talk about things "not only unknown but unimaginable." But this ultimate modesty, derived form a sense of wonder close to mysticism, is found in all great scientists. (Koestler, 1964, p. 683)

Creators as Mystics

The step is not a long one between the omnivalence in a creator's vision, and the mystical and quasi-religious pronouncements dotted here and there like exotic flowers in the biographies of most creative geniuses. The drive to wholeness alone might incline creators to a literal interest in mysticism or a tendency to sound like mystics, but there are other reasons. Traditionally mystics have insisted on the coincidentia oppositorum (coincidence of opposites) that veils their mystical experience. The 'more'-ness and 'this*other-ness' of omnivalence suggest that creators share this experience to some extent.

Isadora Duncan wrote about her omnivalence in terms of her propensity to perform in "a state of complete suspense." (Duncan, 1968. p. 73-74) It was a state that, as creativity scholar Brewster Ghiselin has pointed out, was very close to a religious one (Ghiselin 1952, p.14, 15).

Rene Descartes built his rational system on a kind of ongoing negative capability that he called "methodological doubt." This omnivalence was related to his project to unify all the sciences and mathematics and reveal the secret mind of God.

Mystical religious experience is traditionally characterized by awe, an emotion composed of wonder and dread. The implicit contraries in awe make it quite similar to the emotion (or perception) of omnivalence: that is, a stunning richness of meanings suspended and pointing beyond our customary understandings of reality.

Creativity and mysticism are not merely similar; for some creators mystical religious feeling is literally a part of their vision. Van Gogh's early desire to become a prophet and evangelist was frustrated. He then came to believe that his painting could be his prophecy. He wrote his brother Theo: "To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God" (Gedo, 1983, p. 119). Emily Dickinson set out to recapture the omnivalence of the bible by writing a new kind of spiritual text with her poems (Sewell, 1974).

Modern creators, born into secular times, have turned to omnivalent creative activity as an apparent substitute for omnivalent experience. Kurt Badt (1985) claims Cezanne underwent a conversion in which the loneliness of his loss of God was transformed into an ascetic determination to use his art to "reunite man with the transcendental" (p. 147). The statement is an interesting one for viewers to think about next time they look at Cezanne's bowl of fruit on a tablecloth.

When Einstein's early religious feelings turned sour with the discovery that biblical stories are not literally true, he devoted himself to science as the outlet for what he called "cosmic religious feeling." He wrote:

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it...How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it. (Einstein, 1973, p. 48)

Einstein's pronouncement is essentially mystical. Mystics have often found themselves outside the orbit of organized religion, though organized religion depends upon mystics for its revelations. Mysticism involves a direct apprehension of the truth of the divine not mediated by theological categories. Theologies exist by keeping contraries contrary--dividing those who will achieve salvation from those who won't, for instance. The mystic sees contraries fused, suspended in motion and in fact not contrary, contacting a hidden reality beyond the polarities of thought.

The cases of van Gogh, Cezanne, Einstein and Dickinson indicate that for some creators omnivalence is linked with the desire to formulate a mystical equation in which their own vision and perception of nuance becomes identical with the cosmos. This includes an evangelical need to share the omnivalent experience by creating works that will-to use Einstein's word-"awaken" in others the mystical feeling the creators have experienced in themselves.

For other creators, mystical beliefs or interests seem largely a spill over from the omnivalence in creative activity rather than a primary preoccupation informing that activity. One of Edison's biographers says, "Through much of his life Edison was attracted by mysticism. After the phonograph came into existence, he could almost sense a mystic force moving about in the universe." Edison reportedly developed an interest in Theosophy, an amalgam of spiritualism and Eastern mysticism (Conot, 1979, p. 427).

Two of the creative fathers of quantum theory became fascinated by oriental mystical thought. Erwin Schrodinger believed our scientific view needed to be "amended, perhaps by a bit of blood transfusion from Eastern thought" (Keller, 1983, p. 204). Niels Bohr adopted the ancient Chinese mystical symbol of yin and yang (a cycling fusion of contraries) for his family crest. Geneticist Barbara McClintock, intrigued by the paradoxes of Buddhism and Taoism, declared she was proud to think of herself as a mystic (Keller, 1983, p. 204).

Creators seem similar to mystics and sometimes have an affinity for mystical, religious-like perceptions. But are they truly mystics? Undoubtedly not. Or, they are so only analogously Analogously, we could say that their mysticism is like that heretical variety practiced by the ancient alchemists. Like the alchemists, who believed that the whirlpool of contraries was manifest in the prima materia wherein lay wholeness, truth and the powers of creation, creators find these attributes in the movement of omnivalence. The alchemists also believed that the physical distillation of the prima materia in the laboratory was identical with the spiritual distillation of the soul in the body; likewise, creators believe (implicitly, anyway) transcendental experience can be made manifest in a physical form-in an artwork or scientific discovery. However, unlike the alchemists, creators don't seek by their labors to transcend the physical world and achieve a purely spiritual good. Instead, their goal is to burrow themselves more essentially in the sensory realm and find a spiritual union there.

In his fascinating study of Virginia Woolf, Mark Hussey (1986) captures this idea nicely when he says, "In all [Woolf's] novels there is a sense of yearning, a tending toward the numinous and some revelation of mystery, and this conceptual background often shares the contours of a theology" (p. 137). But, he adds, "Woolf ...attested to ...a 'reality' apart from actual life and yet rooted in it; not mysticism" (p. 141).

It is appropriate that even a definition of the creator's mystical bent loses itself, in the end, in the folds of omnivalence: that is, the creator's mysticism is always "more" or "other" than the defining terms.

The Creative Project

Creators operate throughout their creative lives in a project to invent and articulate a language that will convey their sense of nuance and omnivalence. This project constitutes what is sometimes called the articulation of the creative "vision." For both creative scientists and creative artists the language of vision must form a "bridge" between their existentially private perception, cognition and emotion, and the public, consensual constructs of society at large-the consensual language. Creative scientists must ingeniously use the consensual language of mathematics and reproducible experiment to connect their individual visions to contemporary scientific projects. The creative artist must find a form or language that departs enough but conforms enough to the consensual language to break the elements of our shared language down and reveal what the creator has seen lying between them.

It is my contention that each of us from our existential positions has is in possession of a creative vision; that is, we each exist in omnivalent response to a unique complex of nuances that have never been noticed before by anyone else and will never noticed by anyone else again. The difference between most of us and great creators is that we allow society's consensual languages and consensual constructs to swamp us and obscure these nuances or drive them into the background of our daily lives. For a variety of reasons-reasons as complex and varied as the lives of individual creators themselves-some individuals don't let that happen. They pursue the nuances and omnivalence of their experience with great fervor, using them as beacons. Nuances and omnivalence become magnified and reified by the creator's usually long and persistent focus. Over the course of time, through an often arduous, painful, joyful and seemingly impossible process, creators develop a bridging language by means of which they can convey to others or invoke in them the nuance and omnivalence they experience. In doing so they invoke an ancient paradox in which an experience which at first seem unique to one individual, turns out to be a universal truth.

The argument implicit in the foregoing pages is that Einstein was right when he said that he had "no special talent" beyond curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance. I am convinced that creativity-even very high level creativity-is a self-organizing phenomenon that has no biochemical, biological or genetic origin. If something like the notion of omnivalence is correct, we will not find creativity markers nor be able to induce creativity chemically, surgically, educationally or in any other reductionist way. We will not find its roots in one syndrome or another. We will not be able to predict who will show creative genius and who will not. The capacity for omnivalence is a common human attribute (If readers have been following these ideas by comparing them to their own experience, they will probably have evidence of how common the omnivalent attribute is; no one can appreciate a great work of art without it.) The capacity to give attention to what goes on in our minds is also a common attribute. This suggests that at any time anyone may begin the process of attending to the nuances and omnivalent features of their experience. Through that doorway, accompanied by curiosity, dogged endurance and a desire to share their sense of omnivalence, they may enter into the creative realm.+ Along the way they will have to use their talents, whatever they are, in order to reinvent language. They will have to acquire talents where they have none or even to transmute their deficiencies to good purpose as Flaubert did when he used his dyslexia to pay close attention to words. There are no maps to self-organization and it is an unthinkably subtle and time-absorbing process. (Briggs, 1988)

Most creativity theorists will find little appealing in the idea that creativity is essentially self-organizing, and that the elements of the self-organization are essentially unique for each creator. The investment in the reductionist myth of genius as special talent is too high. Many think Einstein was being uncommonly modest, or perhaps secretly egotistical, when he declined the mantle of the "gift" of genius. But in my view he was being precise. And I believe that the idea that he self-organized himself into the genius he was makes the phenomenon of the creativity he engaged in infinitely more interesting and remarkable than any idea that he possessed a special talent.


The preceding article has been adapted in part from Fire in the Crucible, John Briggs, published by St. Martin's Press, 1988 and Jeremy Tarcher, 1989. Republished by Phanes Press, Nov. 2000. All rights reserved.


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