Jumping the ditch
Catherine Paul ventures into science and returns with some clues about the nature of creativity.
If there were a shelter for abused terms, creative would find refuge there. The word gets knocked around. Accounting is creative if it bends the rules. Aunt June is creative if she over-decorates her cakes.
And yet we yearn to be creative. We sign up for painting classes, buy expensive cameras, fire up the kiln. We dream of the time when we can dump our day jobs and hammer out novels, weld sculpture, reinvent rock ‘n’ roll. While our workaday lives entangle us with, ugh, other people, the urge to create is personal, individual, and ours. Creativity, as we imagine it, is a kind of sanctum, a comfort zone where we can safely be ourselves.
Catherine Paul has a different idea. No safety. No comfort zone. And lots of other people.
Before we set about undermining the very foundations of the creativity culture, on which rest so many hopes and dreams (not to mention large sectors of the economy), we should issue the following disclaimer: There is absolutely nothing wrong with decorating cakes.
But the kind of creativity Paul has in mind doesn’t sugarcoat culture. It rips it apart and bakes a new layer from scratch. At first, people generally fear and reject that kind of change. Think of the near riot that broke out in 1913 when Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring. And the music of composer John Cage, not exactly easy listening, aroused as much anger as admiration, when it was new.
So creativity, Paul says, does not necessarily yield a work that everyone instantly recognizes as good. In many cases, it reconfigures our idea of what good is. And that can be painful.
“It completely unsettles you,” Paul says. “Even with music that we think of as conventionally good, we’ve forgotten how to hear it. We forget to notice how radical Beethoven was, in his time.”
Paul doesn’t just study this kind of creativity; she lives it. She is a professor of English, but of late she has abandoned the well-trodden path she had followed since graduate school and has gone crashing off into the underbrush to consort with anthropologists, biologists, and statisticians. In fact, you might say that
Catherine Paul is destroying her career.
To create it.
Learning from the dead
I inquire about her decade of labor to understand Ezra Pound’s sordid affair with fascism. She winces. “That’s a project that I’m so ready to lay to rest,” she says. “It isn’t where my head is anymore.”
Okay, how about her study of William Butler Yeats’s loopy infatuation with automatic writing, involving his wife and spirits of the dead?
That one makes her smile. Paul is interested in how people learn from the dead. The poems of American Indians, she says, are full of old bones, as are the laboratories of anthropologists and medical schools.
At the marrow is the question of meaning and how we make sense of the world. In this enterprise, the usual toolkit of literary analysis has lost some allure for Catherine Paul. She so admires great poetry that she dreads to submit it to invasive surgery, to treat it like a patient etherized upon a table.
“I love W. H. Auden,” she says, “because I just think his poetry is so moving and so powerful, but I don’t know that I have anything to contribute to it.”
And so, at the stage of her career when she might have settled comfortably and respectably into literary scholarship for the long haul, Paul has opted for open revolt.
“I finished the book about Pound and found myself exasperated with literary scholarship,” she says. “I just wasn’t finding a way to ask and answer new questions that were interesting to me. I was so frustrated that I was even thinking about leaving the profession and going back to graduate school in anthropology.”
This kind of talk from an English professor will seem heretical to some, a crisis of faith to others. But Paul hasn’t given up on the study of English. She thrives on helping her students experience the life-altering force of great literature. Nothing has shaken her faith in that force.
In her scholarship, though, she wants to break new ground. To do so, she has ventured away from her comfort zone.
Pack rat pee
It began, more or less, with pack rats and their pee. Paul had been reading about how scientists in the Southwest were finding a well-preserved record of the environment and ancient human life in pack-rat middens. A pack rat, she learned, pilfers whatever it can from its surroundings, including from human habitations, and brings the loot back to its nest, where it pees all over it. Eventually, the viscous urine crystallizes, sealing the stash in an amber-like preservative.
For Paul, the notion of using a pack-rat midden to piece together stories about the past was irresistible. Here was a new kind of narrative, mostly uncharted by literary types.
“I got very interested in biological anthropology,” she says, “and the idea, for instance, that in human bones you can read a story of what that person’s life was.”
But she didn’t know enough science to master the narrative. She would have to go back to school.
And so, after having attained the lofty status of tenured professor, Paul took a seat among the undergrads again. It was humbling and a little scary; it was also a rush. “A colleague of mine teases me about being an adrenaline junky for school,” Paul says.
She had done this kind of thing before. To understand Ezra Pound’s life in Italy, she studied Italian at Clemson, working her way through Italian 101 and 102, 201 and 202, and 302. She hung around long enough that the Italian department put her to work: She and one of her professors, Barbara Zaczek, collaborated on a couple of articles.
Altruism and the monster
But that was in another life, when Paul was still in the throes of Ezra Pound. For her new life, the subject would be science— biology, ecology, and more. In a class on the evolution of human behavior, taught by Lisa Rapaport, Paul wrote a paper about Beowulf, the epic poem and masterpiece of Old English. In the paper, she tallied the evidence for altruism, counting the times people in Beowulf played nice with one another when they had no expectation of reward. Rapaport liked the paper but thought it lacked statistical rigor. So she took Paul to see Patrick Gerard, a professor of mathematical sciences, who had been helping Rapa-port with statistics in her study of New World monkeys.
Paul remembers the first meeting in Gerard’s office: “So he was helping Lisa with her monkeys, and I was there too, and he said, ‘What are you working on?’ And I said, ‘A study of Beowulf.’ He took his glasses off and said, ‘Excuse me?’”
Before long, Gerard and Paul were having long conversations about, for example, whether to count acts by Grendel, the monster, in their tabulation of human behaviors.
“Patrick speaks a different language than I do,” Paul says. “We set up a database, and we’ll say ‘this is the question we want to answer,’ and he types a bunch of stuff into this program, and it shoots out results, which he can just think in, but I can’t. So we’re constantly translating back and forth, and it’s been astonishing.”
This collision of academic mindsets propels Paul, for better or worse, into territory strange and new. Will the work yield a paper worth publishing? Will it inspire other humanities scholars to jump the ditch into science and math? Too early to say. But the excitement and sense of adventure are just what she had been lacking, before she went AWOL from Big Lit.
Will her quest be truly creative? And what exactly is creativity, anyway? How can we know it when we see it?
These days, Paul is obliged to ponder such questions. She serves as one of seven creativity professors, so appointed by the College of Architecture, Art, and Humanities. Job requirements for this gig, which supplements her regular work, are a little fuzzy, but they seem to entail hanging out with scholars and artists from various disciplines to kick-start creative ideas.
So this route to creativity leads us back to the moiling, roiling realm of other people once again. Can’t we just go it alone? Don’t most great creative works spring intact from the depths of a solitary soul? No, probably not, Paul says. If you follow to its source the trail of creation, you very often find another set of tracks. A patron, perhaps, or an editor. A spouse or partner who toiled in obscurity. An antagonist. A foil. A mentor. An apprentice. A muse.
And even without the direct contribution of another, the creative act does not occur in a void, Paul says. It needs the context of culture, even when the act defies its culture.
The story in the bones
The necessity of context is just as true in science as it is in the arts, Paul says, and breakthroughs in science are very often creative acts that buck the status quo. Paul has been studying one such event: the discovery by Donald Johanson and his team (including Maurice Taieb, Yves Coppen, and students) of perhaps our most famous human ancestor, an australopithecine named Lucy.
Lucy’s discovery ripped up and rewrote a goodly chunk of prehistory, sometimes to fierce opposition. But it also relied heavily on decades of work by many scientists in multiple disciplines. Johanson and a student, Tom Gray, may have been the first to glimpse Lucy’s fossilized arm bone gleaming white in an Ethiopian gully, but the fragment would have meant very little if the scientists had not been so well schooled in the knowledge of their field and so gifted at telling Lucy’s story.
Even in science, discovery is inseparable from narrative, Paul says. What scientists say about their discoveries, and the stories they weave from and about their findings, represent a mighty continent of influential literature, mostly unexplored.
Paul has begun her own exploration of that continent, reading what Johanson and others have to say about Lucy.
“One of the things I found in those papers that I thought was surprising is that Lucy seems to have had a significant spinal malformation that would have been disabling to some degree,” she says. “Not being a scientist, I was surprised that the papers were just sort of glossing over this, and it wasn’t until much later that I actually found a paper that tried to get into it and figure out what was going on. So I said, ‘Why are they glossing over this?’ And my husband, who has a science background, says, ‘Because they don’t know what it means yet, and they can’t talk about it until they know what it means.’”
But for an English professor trained to read between the lines, probing old bones for new meaning is exactly the point. “Why,” she asked, “has the fact that our most famous human ancestor was a disabled woman not been part of our conversation?”
Sharing the load
Paul took the question to Lisa Rapaport, her biology professor, who pointed out that collaborative care—helping those who can’t care for themselves—relates to cooperative breeding, which is how some but not all primates help one another raise their young. “Lisa was saying that once we were working together to take care of our young, then we were more likely to work together on other things, and then we were more likely to make the kind of advances that led to Homo sapiens,” Paul says. “So if Australopithecus afarensis were taking care of each other to the point where Lucy could survive to be the age when she died, then that means cooperative breeding may have been happening earlier than people had thought, and that hasn’t been documented.”
Paul’s take on Lucy isn’t ready to publish yet, but it’s a topic she’ll pursue. She thinks that humanities scholars like her can help demystify the stories of science for citizens and consumers. This is crucial, she says, in a society driven by science and technology.
“In our culture, if you’re not a critical reader, you’re being snowed,” she says. “We should teach scientists to be better writers and humanists to be better readers of science.”
There will be people from both sides—from the humanities and from science—who will shudder at the notion of contaminating one with the other. For some, interbreeding of that sort is strictly taboo. But taboo is a fine place to look for creativity, Paul says. Taboo is a place where the culture pushes back and pushes hard. And creativity, it seems, is a very pushy business.
Fighting for every line
Sometimes the pushiest force in a creative struggle may the form of the work itself. Take poetry, for example. Done well, rhyme and other formal conventions can be fiendishly difficult to manage, forcing the poet to fight for every line.
“I’m a fan of form,” Paul says. “The fact that you’ve got something pushing back forces you into territory that you didn’t necessarily know about. And I think that’s true of any kind of work. We’ve been talking about poetic kinds of form, but I suspect that it’s also true in the kind of forms that scientists deal with.”
In some circles, creativity has come to mean the outright rejection of established form. Today, it may actually be socially riskier for artists to conform to rules and conventions of form than to scrap them. But form and craft, Paul says, are not the enemies of creative work.
“I buy the idea that we haven’t exhausted extant forms, and if you play with them, they play back,” Paul says. “Yeats’s use of ottava rima [a type of rhyming stanza] is amazing. Auden’s play with various literary forms is amazing. Edna Saint Vincent Millay challenged conventional views of gender, but she did so using a very conventional form, the sonnet, which makes the challenge to convention even stronger.”
The culture is a moving target, and an artist who attacks it with shock alone isn’t necessarily creating anything of lasting value, Paul says. “What the avant-garde does is shock and break rules and emphasize the new, and if that’s all you’re doing, you’re going to very quickly run out of new, and the thing doesn’t work anymore. I think you’ve got to have the back and forth, the push and pull.”
Embracing the paradox
Sometimes, the opposing forces exist within a single personality, where the tension of holding competing or contradictory ideas can generate not just energy and angst but, on occasion, extraordinary insight.
William Butler Yeats—Nobel laureate, pillar of the Irish and British literary establishment, and a grounded realist in much of his best-known verse—could embrace, with his wife, the practice of talking with ghosts. His mind could encompass both realms.
“He was fascinating,” Paul says. “Not only was he open to that kind of endeavor, but he believed that he was getting wisdom from it. I think that says wonderful things about the agility and expansiveness of his mind.”
Even in Ezra Pound, contradiction may have served the poet’s creativity. At the same time Pound was writing his sublime Pisan Cantos, he was broadcasting anti-Semitic speeches in support of Mussolini’s fascist ambitions. There is nothing about creativity that necessarily leads one down the path of virtue, Paul says. “I think the propaganda in the radio speeches and the breathtaking poetry in the Pisan Cantos are absolutely intertwined creative acts,” Paul says. “And there’s a tendency in Pound scholarship to want to separate them as though they were irrelevant to one another. I don’t agree with that.”
Is it a contradiction to admire a man’s poetry but condemn his politics? Maybe, maybe not. But ignoring, excusing, or explaining away repellant facts does not bring us closer to the poet or the poem. Sometimes, Paul suggests, an academic compulsion to resolve contradictions or inconsistencies leads us away from the truth of a creative force like Ezra Pound.
Flawless consistency doesn’t seem to rank very high on Paul’s list of life goals. She would rather think about her next risky adventure into parts unknown.
“I’ve always liked that sense of exploring,” she says, “and I guess I have enough intellectual arrogance to believe I can try something. And then I run into somebody who says, ‘this is wrong, and this is wrong, and this is wrong,’ and I say, ‘Okay,’ and I try again.”
No tidy takeaways
It’s tempting to wrap this up with a checklist of tidy talking points, a recipe for baking the perfect creativity cake: Leave your comfort zone. Learn a new body of knowledge. Expose yourself to viewpoints radically different from your own. Dare something risky. Embrace contradiction. Grapple with form. Venture something, and don’t quit if it fails.
But a recipe won’t cut it, if you’re baking something new, and rules of thumb may work best when they are opposable and well opposed. So there are no inviolate rules, and the creative urge keeps us restless and moving, like Lucy, with no final product and no destination in sight.
“What’s interesting about it,” Paul says, “is that you do one thing, and that turns up another thing, and then all of a sudden you’re…”
She stops; her hands come to rest on her chair. There is nothing more to say.
In this story, we will not arrive on a solid promontory we can stake out and claim for our own. The sands will keep moving, exposing old bones we can learn from—or not. As the poet A. R. Ammons wrote in “Dunes:”
“Firm ground is not available ground.”
Catherine Paul is a professor of modernism in the Department of English, College of Architecture, Art, and Humanities. Lisa G. Rapaport is an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Life Sciences. Patrick Gerard is a professor of mathematical sciences in the College of Engineering and Science.