EVERYONE HANKERS, apparently, to make sense out of nonsence - and accomplishment specially useful in Washington, of course - so I was among the great press of folk who raced down to the Museum of History and technology to hear Dr. Rollo May.
Brooke Hindle, the museum's director, said there was a greater rush for invitations to this particular lecture. "The Creative Mind," than any other in this year's series (which is presented in memory of Frank Nelson Doubleday, the publisher).
"Creative" is one of those words applied to everything, nowdays, that one wished to compliment. Thus there are creative cooks, hula hoopers, meter readers, etc., and when I asked Wilton Dillon down there at the Smithsonian if he thought there were creative executioners he said it would not surprise him if some fellows swung axes about with peculiar flair.
It is obvious that "creative" ability is often something the world would be just as well off without. And yet, when all is said and done, one is much in the debt of Bach, Emily Dickinson, Handel and Bob and Ray.
Dr. May, psycholoanalyst and teacher and prolific writer, may be summarized in a nutshell:
Everybody has the itch to make sense of nonsense and confusion. Everybody feels the tension between the life that goes on in his head and the external world. Everybody has certain gifts of abstraction (children love to draw circles) and everybody feels anxiety.
The creative mind can bear more anxiety, at least long enough to give it form, than the average mind.
He cited God (see Genesis, Chapter I) as an example:
The earth was without form, and was given form. The darkness was separated from the light. Even if God is dead, as they say, He did a great job the first week.
May said the gist of creation is to give form to the formless, to give meaning (or to detect it) to the meaningless.
That is why, he said, creative people like richness, complexity, a sort of profusion. It is not that they despise a straight line, necessarily, but that they have the strength to cope with a whole junkyard.
They have enough ego - they often do not depend much on what we think of them - to try out complicated things. They allow their subconscious, the stuff of dreams, to come up. They do not slam the lid on thoughts that frighten them, because they know they will hold together in one piece, even in the face of uncharted confusion.
("Though I walk through the valley," etc.)
But isn't it dangerous to allow the dark subconscious to surface? Isn't there danger of getting lost in those woods in which we set forth with such gusto, not knowing the way?
Yes, he said. The ego has to be very strong. And if the wild forces - the daimonic forces - are too strong, the person may go mad. Hence the closeness of genius to lunacy. Those terrible green birds.
The audience was pleased to think of these things, and May was a great success. You could tell he wished there was time to deal more with the aspect of playfulness (a hound pup is not the only creature that learns much of what it at least knows through playing for the sake of playing), He would have liked, I gathered, to deal more with creativity that falls flat though failure of technique, failure of sufficient experience (a hound pup does not succeed at B minor Masses, for all its four-footed insights.
He touched on tragedy, and chose some pretty lines of Matthew Arnold's about the emptiness of the world's pretended promises. The lines, though they acknowledged a sort of despair or at least a sort of sadness, gave that sadness a memorizable form. Something that could be held in the mind and thought of, and got used to, instead of just floating about in a shapeless dread.
There have been, of course, in this language, poets the lachets of whose shoes "Dover Beach" illustrated May's point. (If not December's.)
Implicit though all the lecture was a tenderness that I, for one, was soothed by. Arnold may serve to illustrate creativity as well as Milton. And, if so, the creative cook (God save us all) with his turnip and anchovy bombe has a place also. And so do those of us not very creative, not awfully strong in the ego ("My eyes are none of the best," as a wit once said) who rely on the great.
Bach, say. Or those others, whose stuff in their own time has survived into ours, like a rock in a weary land, a fortress which our flats were pretty well overrun, or a tune to keep us peaceful in the very worst traffic snarl.
Dante, said the lecturer, had Virgil with him when he toured the inferno. Virgil was dead long years before, yet Virgil went along, to keep him sweet through any stench and get him home.
Even the great like Dante can't go it alone. Even Shakespeare, even Mozart, had to have somebody when they were scared. Not to hold their hand but to be there with power.
May is a feisty fellow, who likes o toss off things anybody can argue with. "The breakthough of cubism," he said, is the clearest example of symbols in our day. It is, in fact, not the clearest example of anything.
But I can believe him when he said he had felt times of ecstasy when he was working on his lecture.
I can believe even more than that, that the guy who once made up some music (with all the anxiety May says is part of the work) got delight from knowing we might get a charge out of it years later. Who never had a hand in it at all.
There are some things I read (usually, of course, I read newspapers and things about fish) that I never pick up without an equal mixture of jealousy, awe and gratefulness. Written for we.
"They took some honey and plenty of money.
Wrapped up in a five-pound note."
Pretty heady stuff.
And there are other things, words and musics, even headier.
It's good to think of the great ones who gave things form - form that measures our own lives, as May said - sitting around swatting bees where the wild thyme blooms, or rassling around on the yellow sand in sport, or sampling sherbets with houris, or entered into the joy dreamed up for them by both gods and men.
They were already like gods, who sang like them in their own time, but accessible to us in ours. Just as Virgil went with Dante the whole trip long.
They go with us to the country, or through hell, or the suburbs even. In a fight they are there with arms, and at night with stars.