Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Creativity Rather Than Problem-Solving

We are on the final chapter of Dorothy Sayers' Mind of the Maker.  Go to Ordo Amoris for discussion of the chapter and links to other posts. 

I think I will just put a huge quote here -- I bolded the parts that especially struck me: 

To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of problems of extreme difficulty, which he has to solve with the means at his disposal. And he is distressed to find that the more means he can dispose of such as machine-power, rapid transport, and general civilised amenities, the more his problems grow in hardness and complexity. This is particularly disconcerting to him, because he has been frequently told that the increase of scientific knowledge would give him "the mastery over nature"-which ought, surely, to imply mastery over life.

Perhaps the first thing that he can learn from the artist is that the only way of "mastering" one's material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.

The second thing is, that the words "problem" and "solution" as commonly used, belong to the analytic approach to phenomena, and not to the creative. Though it has become a commonplace of platform rhetoric that we can only "solve our problems" by dealing with them "in a creative way", those phrases betray, either that the speaker has repeated a popular cliche without bothering to think what it means, or that he is quite ignorant of the nature of creativeness.

From our brief study of the human maker's way of creation, it should be fairly clear that the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver or a student of elementary algebra, to deduce from them a result which shall be final, predictable, complete and the only one possible. The concept of "problem and solution" is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. To add John to Mary in a procreative process does not produce a "solution" of John's and Mary's combined problem; it produces George or Susan, who (in addition to being a complicating factor in the life of his or her parents) possesses an independent personality with an entirely new set of problems. Even if, in the manner of the sentimental novel of the 'nineties, we allow the touch of baby hands to loosen some of the knots into which John and Mary have tied themselves, the "solution" (meaning George or Susan) is not the only one possible, nor is it final, predictable or complete.
This says so much to me that I am planning to think about it all during Lent.    If Sayers is right, I have been thinking about life all wrong.    In the big picture, perhaps, I envision my life as a quest or a creative endeavour, but in the day to day, I tend to think more in terms of dividing and conquering, of planning and scheduling and problem-solving. 

There is nothing wrong with this in itself -- surely the artist also spends a lot of time solving plot or style problems.  I know that when my husband knocks off work for the day (he is a computer game designer, so his work is a mixture of creative and analytical) he still keeps part of his mind tossing around some difficulty that has come up in the course of the work.  

But I notice that the people who seem to have the most meaningful lives have in common a kind of creativity, a willingness to customize their given circumstances.   It's not at all like self-indulgence, because it is principled, but not in a lockstep way.  My parents were like that.  Their lives were completely unique, but not at all eccentric.  

I think it is a bit like the talents in the parable.     Sayers compares it to living under the Law, compared to living under grace.

What is obvious here is the firmly implanted notion that all human situations are "problems" like detective problems, capable of a single, necessary, and categorical solution, which must be wholly right, while all others are wholly wrong. But this they cannot be, since human situations are subject to the law of human nature, whose evil is at all times rooted in its good, and whose good can only redeem, but not abolish, its evil. The good that emerges from a conflict of values cannot arise from the total condemnation or destruction of one set of values, but only from the building of a new value, sustained, like an arch, by the tension of the original two. We do not, that is, merely examine the data to disentangle something that was in them already: we use them to construct something that was not there before: neither circumcision or uncircumcision, but a new creature.
Sayers applies the insight that creativity is not solving a problem, but developing a new thing that takes into account and balances the old dichotomy, to various spheres -- to social problems, to the doctor's vocation (he does not restore the patient to what he was before, but helps him find a new balance), to detective stories, to theological issues.   My husband and I were listening to a Great Courses series on our trip back from Oregon yesterday, on "Faith and Reason in the Middle Ages", and one notices this process going on through history.   Chesterton compares orthodoxy to a chariot, swinging in one direction and then balancing back, staying on the road, but not in a lockstep fashion.

This perhaps makes the habits one tries to instill in one's children not so much like tracks to run on like a train, but rather more like tools the child can use to develop into what God wants him to be.

Cindy says she plans to read this book again sometime; I do too.  It's one of those books like Poetic Knowledge that is hard to get into the container of one's mind; instead it's like meeting up with something large and feeling like one only partially saw it before it continued on its way.     


  1. Willaaaaaa..... hello, friend!
    I am reading the book too.

    I read Queen of Carrots post on the last chapter (she added it at Cindy's blog too), and even before getting to that chapter myself, I already detected what you say here too, I have been thinking about life much as a set of problems and solutions... but now (and I mixed this with what I remember from Poetic Knowledge)I even wrote this at the AO forum: I have decided not to see my life as a set of problems to be fixed, but as a poetic and joyful journey.

    Queen of Carrots also writes about how we have reduced the Bible to a problem-solution sort of manual... I agree. It is liberating and enlightening to read Sayers.

    You even say TOOLS, as Sayers says herself. Tools of learning, tools of christianity, for our children and ourselves, instead of showing them a path, of giving them our solutions.

    1. I mean showing them a path in the way you nicely put it, like tracks to run on like a train.

  2. Willa, I'm not clever enough to completely understand this but I did relate to the quote about abandoning the concept of mastery and co-operating in love. This has been something I've had to work through, over the past year, and coming to this realisation has helped me to reconnect with God as Creator.

    I'm in awe of your thinking! Inspiring me to more reading.
    God bless, Willa:-)

  3. "I'm in awe of your thinking!"

    That is always how I feel about Willa and her "ramblings" ;)

    God bless you, Vicky!!


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