The Council of Scholars set off yesterday to search for the sources and characteristics of creativity, an intellectual truffle hunt that left its quarry looking as elusive as ever, though the pursuers raised an eloquent hue and cry.
The 23-member council, culled from the loftier levels of academe and the arts, is in its own right a rather fresh-faced creation, having only recently been established under the auspices of the Library of Congress. "To identify and inventory the state of the world's knowledge" is the committee's modest goal in the words of its chairman, Jaroslav Pelikan, who explained -- and there was little room to quarrel -- that "if we don't do it, the hacks will do it, so why not?"
Ultimately, it was the puzzle that lay at the core of the creative process that claimed their attention, the ways i which the artist "to make us aware for our souls' sake that most of the things that are interesting about our predicament are mysterious," as William Meredith, poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, put it. The scientists saw it as well -- the most haunting question, said Gerald Holton, a Harvard professor of physics and the history of science, "is that science can be done at all by ordinary mortals." In the end, he said, quoting Einstein, "The real marvel is that we can understand anything at all about the physical world."
Such enigmatic ponderings would seem to leave little room for pedestrian political controversy, but violinist Yehudi Menuhin managed to reap a rich harvest just the same. "Man's and woman's creative urges are in sharp contrast to each other," Menuhin wrote in his paper, "Creativity in the Arts." "The man is driven to strike out, to build roads -- roads anywhere and nowhere in particular -- sometimes leading to heaven, more often back to self -- and general destruction. The woman is on the other hand, compelled to plough and till over and over again the same plot of earth, from time to time attracting a male to ensure its fertility and, if she has captivated him, defending it together, or alone, against other male depredations."
"Dangerous sexist sterotyping," poet Maxine Kumin called it, saying she "deplored this facile chauvinism." Kumin, it seemed, had been somewhat prepared for this attitude when she walked into the council's first meeting Wednesday to find that she was one of only two female members of the group. "I felt as though I had stumbled into a stag club and ought to leap out of a cake," she said, and while there were those who tittered at the very idea, Daniel Boorstin, the librarian of Congress and the moderator of the panel, was not one of them.
Boorstin said that the dearth of female representation was "a witness to the need for a women's movement and a civil rights movement" and the other movements, but that it was not a witness to discrimination on the council's part. "To have chosen a certain number of women because they were women or blacks for their race -- that would have been discrimination," Boorstin said.
Later in the day, the council members were off in hot pursuit of the question of whether creative achievement could be measured by historical and psychological standards and whether Matisse's decision to paint the grass the color of flowers and the flowers the color of grass qualified him as a "superior problemizer." The Muse no doubt managed a smile or two over the whole affair, taking comfort in Diana Menuhin's observation (in quite a different context) that "the whole fun is making something out of nothing."